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September 12, 2018

The first lady who briefly politicked for her family’s sake


September 12, 2018

Begum Kulsoom Nawaz with former minister Khawaja Saad Rafique during a protest rally against former military dictator Pervez Musharraf in Lahore. Picture Khawaja Saad Rafique

ISLAMABAD: An otherwise politically discreet and inactive Begum Kulsoom Nawaz made her mark in politics when the second Nawaz Sharif administration was dismissed by Pervez Musharraf on October 12, 1999.

From the day the coup was staged till the exile of the Sharif family to Saudi Arabia in December 2000, she worked hard in the political arena to keep the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) afloat, intact and vibrant. During this period, she raised her voice every day.

She was then the only prominent female member of the family and spearheaded the campaign for the release of her spouse, son Hussain Nawaz and brother-in-law Shahbaz Sharif from the notorious Attock Jail.

After the imposition of Musharraf’s rule, Begum Kulsoom was the only force left in the political field to offer stiff resistance to his regime. Other political players opted for a safe trajectory.

She traveled from city to city, heading the campaign against the military regime, prompting Musharraf to conclude that he would not be able to govern peacefully as long as she was in Pakistan.

An infamous episode of her political struggle saw the authorities lock her inside her vehicle on a Lahore road as she prepared to lead an anti-government procession, compelling her to stay put for hours.

During her intense 14-month stint in politics, Begum Kulsoom regularly visited Nawaz Sharif at the Attock Jail, where he was confined while under trial on various charges.

After the Sharif family went into exile, Begum Kulsoom resumed the role of a non-political wife and mother she had performed since 1985, when Nawaz Sharif became the chief minister of Punjab, the stepping stone to his later election as prime minister in 1990, 1997 and 2013. She held the rare distinction of being the only three-time first lady of Pakistan.

She was a brave, graceful and dignified lady. But this did not restrain some political opponents of the Sharif family from publicly ridiculing her terminal illness as a “drama” to evoke public sympathy.

Begum Kulsoom was abruptly taken to London in August last year after she complained of health complications. She was subsequently diagnosed with throat cancer. As her illness took grip, she was put on life support at the hospital where she was under treatment, but never recovered.

In her absence, she was nominated by the leadership of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz to contest the by-election for the National Assembly seat which fell vacant in July 2017 after the Supreme Court disqualified Nawaz in the Panama Papers case. Maryam ran her successful election campaign against heavy odds but, due to her illness, Begum Kulsoom could not return to Pakistan to take oath as a member of the National Assembly.

Obviously, the death of Begum Kulsoom is a devastating blow to Nawaz. He has repeatedly expressed regrets that he could not talk to his unconscious wife while in London from June 14 to July 13, before returning to Pakistan court arrest after his conviction by an accountability court in the London apartments case.

During this absence from Pakistan, Nawaz, daughter Maryam and son-in-law Capt. (retd) Muhammad Safdar were convicted and sentenced to imprisonment. Due to his political compulsions, he and his daughter flew home and were arrested at Lahore airport before disembarking from the plane.

The tragic passing of Begum Kulsoom has occurred when Nawaz Sharif is already faced with an extremely difficult period of his political career. He, his daughter and son-in-law are imprisoned, and he is disqualified for life from holding public office.

The situation is similar to that which prevailed when his father, Mian Muhammad Sharif, passed away in October 2004, during his sons' exile in Jeddah. Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif wanted to attend his funeral in Pakistan but were not allowed to return unless they accepted Musharraf's pre-condition that they quit politics.

The Sharif brothers rejected the offer.

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