It is unfortunate that Kulsoom Nawaz has not been spared even in grave illness. The three-time first lady was diagnosed with lymphoma, a form of cancer that affects the immune system, in August last year. She was placed on a ventilator last month and continues to fight for her life in London. Anyone else in her place would have retired from public life. Not Kulsoom Nawaz.
She won a by-election for the National Assembly seat, vacated by her husband’s disqualification, from her hospital bed even though she had to spend her maiden stint as a lawmaker outside the country. One could question the wisdom of this decision. Why expose a critically ill person to such intense scrutiny of the media and public? Her serious ailment would have been a solid reason to withdraw from the bypoll. But it appears that every time Nawaz Sharif is in trouble, his wife emerges as his saviour.
Kulsoom Nawaz comes from a respected Lahori family. Her maternal grandfather Ghulam Mohammad Baksh, better known by his ring name, The Great Gama, is considered one of the greatest wrestlers of all time. Kulsoom completed her master’s in Urdu from Punjab University in 1970 and married Nawaz Sharif the year after. Together, the couple has four children. Despite being the spouse of one of the most powerful men, she has always exuded a passive and patient demeanour. And her role as the first lady notwithstanding, she has maintained a low profile even in the face of controversies. It is unfair that now, when she cannot defend herself, she has been thrust into a messy political war of words.
The comments on her illness range from insensitive to vile. But her husband has not helped her public image either.
She has been brought into the limelight and then pushed back indoors on the whim of Nawaz Sharif. At times, she would not accompany the former prime minister on official tours — Nawaz Sharif would take his daughter Maryam Nawaz instead. At other times, as exhibited in last year’s by-election, she is touted as the only person who could possibly replace Nawaz Sharif. There was speculation that Kulsoom Nawaz would become the party’s president to avoid Shehbaz Sharif’s elevation to the post. Her familial ties with some PMLN public representatives such as Bilal Yasin and Mohsin Latif are signs that she has enjoyed a silent but strong say in the party.
Indeed, she has led with dogged conviction in the past. When Pervez Musharraf toppled Nawaz Sharif’s government in 1999 and arrested members of his family before sending them to exile, she became his party’s president and remained so till 2002. In 2000, she vowed to lead a motor procession from her Lahore residence to Peshawar. The rally was ostensibly being held to raise money for drought victims, but was in reality meant to drum up public support for the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.
However, not long after leaving her Model Town residence, Kulsoom’s car was surrounded by policemen who tried unsuccessfully to get her to step out of the vehicle. At one point, an overhead crane was used to tow the car away. The standoff lasted around 10 hours before Kulsoom was allowed to return home. She had just sent a powerful military dictator scrambling for extra security measures.
Nearly two decades later, she is unable to stand up for him. But Sharif continues to cite her illness to highlight the unfair treatment meted out to him by the courts. He claims to have been prevented from visiting his ailing wife. This is not entirely true. She is in London, presumably getting the finest treatment money can buy, because Nawaz Sharif failed to build a hospital in Pakistan he could trust with his wife’s life. And the courts have granted him reprieve at least twice.
He also claims to be a victim of the private being made public when he himself has chosen to politicize private matters to his own benefit. He now castigates Imran Khan for disrespecting women in politics when earlier he himself raised derogatory slogans against Benazir Bhutto and his party air dropped fake pictures of her mother during their bitter tussle for power. When Nusrat Bhutto got Alzheimer’s, she was heckled by PMLN leaders for forgetting which side of the aisle she belonged to in the National Assembly.
Nawaz Sharif’s own brand of politics is coming back to haunt him. Sadly, its latest victim is his partner of nearly 50 years who has done more for her husband’s party than many loyalists who claim to have been at his side through thick and thin.
This was originally published in the July 2018 issue of the Herald. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.