Maryam Nawaz Sharif is a victim of clichés. The child with a silver spoon, heir apparent, so close yet so far. She cuts a divisive figure in Punjab’s political landscape. So it must come as a relief to her that even if the NA-120 victory is not attributed to Maryam, neither is a defeat. She successfully campaigned for her ailing mother. Perhaps Kulsoom Nawaz was always going to win, even if the margin of victory shrank significantly. The constituency has been Nawaz Sharif’s bastion since 1985, when it was the NA-86 and later NA-95. He has won the seat six times. His ouster should have naturally paved the way for his daughter’s ascendency. But politics is the art of possible and this wasn’t.
In Sharif’s three terms as the prime minister of Pakistan, this is the first time that his daughter has played an active role in politics. In the last five years, Maryam’s became a prominent name in the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PMLN) roster and not just as the daughter of the party’s supreme leader. She took part in the 2013 election campaign and also headed PMLN’s social media wing during and after the polls. She was chairperson of the Prime Minister’s Youth Programme till her appointment was challenged in the Lahore High Court a year later, forcing her to resign. She was seen distributing laptops to students on behalf of the Punjab government even though she holds no elected office either in the province or at the centre.
Last year, a Chinese deputy minister singled her out for a visit: “We will be happy if you include your talented daughter Ms Maryam Nawaz in the visiting delegation,” he said while extending an invitation to the party. There were even murmurs of comparison between her and Benazir Bhutto’s visit to Shimla with her father for an accord with India in 1972. “I have a lot of respect for the lady, but … the only thing which is common between us is gender, ” Maryam later clarified, albeit in a different context. It was apparent she would carry on her father’s legacy in her own distinct brand. Or so it seemed.
The past year, however, became all about damage control. Damage inflicted by the Panama Papers’ leak. Damage inflicted by Imran Khan’s constant political pillory against the Sharifs. Damage inflicted by her own arrogance. Her refusal to acknowledge the Panama Papers as a legitimate matter of concern. Her casual dismissal of allegations of submitting forged documents in court. Her suspected role in leaking a story about the government’s confrontation with top military brass over countering militancy, an attempt to distance her father’s past association with the military. After Sharif’s ouster, she became the party’s anti-establishment face, counting the injustices done to her father over the years. This always leads to trouble.
One of her father’s oldest aides and former interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, said Maryam needed to “prove herself”. She was instantly reduced to a privileged child riding on the wave of her father’s successes. Her alleged ownership of multiple offshore properties, including the infamous London flats, left her out of the NA-120 contest. Other pending cases also make it unclear if she will be able to contest polls in the future. More recently, the Sindh High Court has asked her to explain what she did with the 70 million US dollars she received from Michelle Obama for promoting girls’ education in Pakistan. And herein stands Nawaz Sharif’s flawed familial flange.
Sharif cannot use his wife and daughter as his substitute fielders. Thrown in the field at a whim to absorb pressure, to serve as shields. He cannot tuck away his younger daughter and wife, keeping them away from the public eye on the pretext of cultural conservatism and then serve up the latter on an as-and-when-needed basis. And he cannot use Maryam as an auxiliary if he means for her to become his heir. For her part, Maryam needs to exchange her pride for pragmatism if she is to inspire any confidence in her father’s coterie.
This was originally published in the Herald's October 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.