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DAWN - Features; 11 February, 2005

February 11, 2005

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Shahbaz wedding: political fallout

By Masood Haider

The news of PML-N leader Shahbaz Sharif's marriage to Ms Tehmina Durrani of 'My Feudal Lord' fame has had a mixed reaction in New York, where Mr Sharif is currently undergoing medical tests.

Many of his followers here were shocked by the news. They feel that their leader may have hurt his political career and put paid to the possibility of a resurrection in Pakistan.

His apparent willingness to return to Pakistan, seek to rebuild his political base and try to create a government of national reconciliation may have been compromised, many PML men here feel.

However, some differ from this view, and point out that his new wife has her own powerful connections within the establishment. Given these connections, Ms Durrani could help Mr Shahbaz Sharif "find his way back to Pakistan and establish him as a major political force", one retired bureaucrat who lives in New York remarked.

The Shahbaz-Tehmina wedding at a secret ceremony in Dubai reminds me of a 1998 meeting with Ms Durrani at a friend's house in Lahore.

This was soon after Mr Sharif had married Ms Aalia and the media were still trying to guess who she was and why the iron man of Lahore had married her. But even then, when the henna had hardly dried on Aalia's hands, Ms Durrani had said things that made me feel that Aalia had reasons to watch out. That day in 1998 Ms Durrani urged me to dwell deeper into the "leadership qualities" of Mr Shahbaz Sharif. She hinted that no other Pakistani leader possessed the leadership qualities that Shahbaz Sharif did.

She was convinced that the younger Sharif was the one to eventually lead the country to an economic revival and would one day become prime minister of the country. I told her that Lahore was not my territory and if at any point in time Mr Sharif was in New York I would meet him and explore the qualities she was talking about.

Indeed, within a few months, Mr Sharif came to Washington and then to New York and we sat down to talk. The interview was published in Dawn. He sounded like a man charged, who felt he had new ideas about resolving the Kashmir dispute, but that the country first needed to be put on a sound economic footing. Once this was achieved, Kashmir would fall like a ripened apple in Pakistani hands, he said. Then came the 1999 Kargil offensive, and the rest is history.

In 2002, Mr Sharif came to New York again, and the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Hospital for treatment. The operation was dubbed successful, but Mr Sharif stayed around for months to undergo follow-up tests.

While in New York he started to talk politics, expressing his desire to go back to Pakistan, saying: "Pakistan is my country. Who can stop me from going there?" He did not believe that the 2000 agreement between his family, the Saudi government and President Musharraf's government, which barred him from returning to Pakistan for 10 years, could prevent him from returning to Lahore with a big bang.

He soon left New York for London and after almost six months' stay there he went to Pakistan in May, 2004 -- only to be deported again to Saudi Arabia.

In many meetings with Mr Sharif, one discovered that, though known for his strong and volatile temperament, he was willing to call a spade a spade.

He admitted to mistakes made by his brother and his party in arresting Asif Zardari, attacking the Supreme Court and seeking passage for the Shariat bill, that could have anointed Nawaz Sharif as Caliph of Pakistan.

He pleaded for a national reconciliation with the PPP and asked all politicians to stop seeking the army's intervention in the political affairs of the country. "We should stop visiting the GHQ every time we have problems among ourselves. This way we demean ourselves and undermine the political process," he said. But that was the talk of a shattered politician who had lost power in the country through a military coup and was reviled as a corrupt leader who along with his brother and family had taken advantage of the system and pocketed millions.

The family-owned Raiwind estate was held up to illustrate the family's alleged corruption. But Shahbaz Sharif said the family had acquired its money through sheer hard work. He insisted that when Mr Z.A. Bhutto had nationalized the steel industry, his family had lost everything. "We did not get a single penny in compensation", he said. "But then my father and the family built up the Ittefaq industries again".

He did agree that the whole political process was undermined by the two mainstream parties when they tried to seek the army's intervention in the affairs of the country in order to attain power. "Both parties are to be equally blamed," he insisted.