OF all political journeys Pakistan has witnessed, Mian Mohammad Nawaz Sharif’s must rank among the most remarkable.
Sharif was 29 when his family-owned industrial empire, nationalised by ousted leader Z.A. Bhutto, was returned to them by military ruler Gen Ziaul Haq in 1978. By 1981, the bond between the two had been cemented further as Nawaz Sharif had been drafted in as the finance minister in the Punjab administration by the military governor Lt-Gen Ghulam Jilani Khan.
Of course in the 1985 party-less elections, the Sharif family scion bagged the biggest provincial prize when he became the chief minister. First as a student, then as a Karachi-based journalist, I watched his steady ascent to power from a distance only to come face to face with him in 1988.
Soon after the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) was created in September 1988 to unite all right of centre parties in order to block the march to power of Benazir Bhutto, and years before Gen Hamid Gul’s confession that he was responsible for its formation as DG ISI, it was clear to many of us that this was the case.
So, after a meeting at Jamaat-i-Islami leader Prof Ghafoor Ahmad’s Karachi home, I put the charge to Sharif that IJI had been formed by the ISI. His rosy cheeks acquired more colour. Visibly angry, he only said: “Mein iss sawal kaa jawab dena zaroori nahin samajhta” (I don’t think it necessary to answer that question). He was quickly ushered away.
Despite the machinations of Hamid Gul & Co, the national elections saw PPP emerging as the largest single party. Benazir Bhutto’s political Achilles heel, her spouse, was yet to become a factor. Had the provincial elections been held simultaneously with the National Assembly polls, Pakistan’s political landscape could perhaps have been different.
PPP won the most seats from Punjab and could have quickly enthroned itself in Lahore also. But the gap between the two elections witnessed a vicious campaign run on malicious ethnic lines with the slogan: ‘Jaag Punjabi jag, teri pagg noon laga daag’ (Awaken O Punjabi your honour is at stake).
This was an obvious reference to the Sharif-led IJI’s dismal showing in Sindh where all stalwarts who ran on IJI tickets lost the elections, with the MQM (Karachi and Hyderabad) and PPP taking all but one Sindh seat.
The campaign was effective. The IJI clawed back some of the ground lost in the national elections and then with a friendly, all-powerful president, army and intel chiefs was able to take power in the critical Punjab province and become a launch pad for most anti-PPP activity.
The next I was to see Nawaz Sharif was two years later during the reign of (then) caretaker Sindh chief minister Jam Sadiq Ali when he addressed a press conference at the CM House. Some of us asked questions that Sharif, with the colour in his ample cheeks turning several shades darker, steered towards Mushahid Husain and Asif Vardag.
With the press conference over, Sharif walked over to where some of us were seated several rows back, shook our hands and said something to the effect that he was pleased to meet ‘robust, educated’ journalists before walking away.
His DG, Punjab Information Department, didn’t seem to agree. After his boss walked away, he lingered long enough to tell us in a tone dripping with contempt: “Kamal hai aap loag kaise sawal karte hein. Lahore mein to kissi ki jurrat nahin hotee” (Amazing, you ask such questions; nobody would dare to in Lahore).
In a city which produced journalists such as I.A. Rehman, Nisar Osmani, Mazhar Ali Khan, Husain Naqi and Aziz Siddiqui to name just a few in no particular order, it was amazing to us that the DG was saying what he was.
Mian Sahib won the next election. And several months into his prime ministerial stint headed to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Somehow the invitation was passed from the chief editor down to me, and I boarded the VVIP flight for the first (and gratefully the last) government-funded junket of my professional life.
“Mian Saab saade bande hege nein. Take-off toon badd sirif ekko e request hondee ae una dee: keema te porauntha” (Mian Sahib is a very simple man. After take-off he has just one request: qeema, paratha); this is how the man in charge of catering on board described his boss to me.
When we stopped for a day in Zurich on our return, I was to discover another side of the prime minister. No, he wasn’t singing one of his reportedly favourite Bollywood’s songs: ‘Kon he jo sapnon mein aaya’; it was his love of cars.
I got up early and headed out for a walk. Just beyond the porch, Mian Sahib’s former neighbour and close family friend Mujibur Rahman (yes, the infamous Senator Saifur Rahman’s younger brother) and Pakistan’s main BMW importer then (you would recall the SROs which allowed hundreds of duty-free beamers in) was holding open the door of a flame red, BMW coupe.
Appearing eager to sink into the plush leather-upholstered seat, the prime minister saw me ogling at the car but since he was in my line of vision, he must have thought I, a journalist, was stunned that a poor country’s leader was admiring such an expensive car. So he hurriedly moved away.
Not long after his return home, he was to be pushed out of power, only to stage another comeback, this time with such a ‘heavy’ mandate that he all but proclaimed himself amirul momineen. But his handpicked army chief, a near-suicidal adventurist, exiled him after overthrowing and jailing him.
His latest comeback is the stuff dreams are made of. His supporters say his conduct since signing the Charter of Democracy with Benazir Bhutto is a testament to his new-found maturity; that the vindictive, intolerant, power-hungry man was buried in exile. In his place, has been born the democrat, the statesman. We wait with bated breath to find out if that’s true.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.