In the start of October, former prime minister Mian Nawaz Sharif’s visit to London led to a field day for the media in Pakistan, especially TV news channels. Analysts who analyse everything from different types of nuclear weapons to Pakistani soap operas’ impact on the psyche of children – while not being qualified to speak on either topic – declared that the former prime minister and his family had run away. Some even went an extra mile and suggested that this time even Saudi Arabia was not going to give them sanctuary.
Nawaz, however, was just calmly spending time with his ailing wife, who had won a by-election in absentia. Their daughter, Maryam Nawaz, had run a successful election campaign on her behalf. Even after Begum Kulsoom Nawaz won the election, analysts were trying to prove that she had actually lost it by not winning with the margin her husband had achieved in the last general elections.
The graft court in Pakistan had issued a summons for Nawaz Sharif and others. So, the former prime minister boarded a PIA flight for Islamabad as soon as his wife’s condition stabilised.
I wasn’t surprised at the time that Nawaz Sharif went back to Pakistan, unlike many others who have either completely failed to see the change in Nawaz Sharif during the last decade or let their wishful thinking take over. “I have become nazriyati (ideological)”, Nawaz had said. As far as the selection of words goes and the way he uttered them, many would have laughed at him. But I can sense the change and the message.
In 2001, when Sharif and his family were guests of the Saudi royal family, I travelled to Jeddah to meet Mian Nawaz Sharif in the sprawling Suroor Palace. He had kindly agreed to see me.
I thanked him for giving me time and then I started by asking him “Why did you agree to go into exile? Don’t you think you have disappointed millions of people who trusted in your leadership and you have just left them behind?”
Sharif told me that he was behind bars when one day his mother came to see him and gave him the good news about the Saudi-Musharraf arrangement. “I considered it a blessing from God and accepted it”.
I asked him several other questions; it was his first on-the-record interview after going into exile, during which he did say that if he returned to power he would try Musharraf under Article 6 of the constitution for high treason.
The reason I have brought this story from the past is to describe the change that has taken place in the thinking of Mian Nawaz Sharif during the last several years. I am not arguing whether the Sharifs have dubious funds or not. The courts or parliament are the right place for that. I also don’t disagree with those who point out the questionable political, ideological and industrialist past of Nawaz Sharif and his family.
But people change. And in the last few years, Nawaz Sharif has shown a changed personality. He did try to mend fences and improve relations with India – despite opposition. His government did at least talk against sectarian and jihadi organisations, if not doing enough to curtail them. However, under immense pressure, and apparently to save his own power, he did take U-turns on many policies. But, many people, in the absence of any other viable leadership in the country, they are supporting Nawaz Sharif. This support is even coming from those who had always been against the politics of the PML-N and the Sharifs.
But there is a catch-22 situation. At a time when Nawaz Sharif is receiving support from unlikely sections of society, some of his traditional supporters and even some members of his family are turning their backs on the ‘New Nawaz Sharif.’
A large number of sectarian and religion-driven votes in the NA-120 by-poll went to sectarian organisations, lowering the margin of Begum Kulsoom Nawaz against her PTI opponent. Nawaz’s apparent policy of defiance has even confused his traditional support base of the trader community, which has traditionally strongly supported the establishment.
But the strongest resistance Nawaz Sharif is facing is from within the family. It is now an open secret that his brother Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and some members of the party are not quite on the same page on the policy of defiance. They fear losing this fight and possibly thus losing the privileges they have enjoyed for decades.
And that is the problem. No matter how much Nawaz Sharif wants to change the course and live in history as a leader and visionary who left a positive legacy, many people still strongly believe that he will take a U-turn and use his defiance only to negotiate a better deal. Will Nawaz Sharif prove them wrong for a change?
The writer is a freelance contributor.