ISLAMABAD: On Wedn­e­sday night, the television coverage in Pakistan was focused on what was being telecast from Washington DC as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif descended on the White House to meet President Barrack Obama.

However, all the Pak-American activity was not limited to the Oval Office. In another wing of the White House, the first daughter too had her first engagement on the international stage.

Standing besides First Lady Michelle Obama, as the Pakistani First Lady sat quietly in the audience, Maryam Nawaz Sharif gave her first speech during an international visit. Speaking on education for the girl child, she mentioned that she and her two daughters were enjoying their comfortable stay at the Blair House.

It seemed to be a working trip for the entire family.

Though Maryam’s meeting with Michelle Obama was focused on education, the bigger news appears to lie in the fact that the Americans have used the trip and the education initiative to cultivate Maryam, who is being seen as the heir apparent of Nawaz Sharif.

With Maryam speaking at White House, speculation increases about her being groomed as PM’s successor

What else could have led to Michelle Obama’s surprise choice to work with Maryam on girls’ education (the first daughter till the White House invitation had not shown any interest in or done any substantial work on education)? That the Americans had a bigger plan in mind was also evident from the fact that the messenger who delivered the invitation to Maryam was Dr Peter Lavoy, who is President Obama’s top aide on South Asia. Her interaction with Dr Lavoy, who is the principal interlocutor on the nuclear parleys raised many eyebrows in Pakistan.

Maryam too is enjoying the importance that the Americans are extending to her. In a twitter posting from Washington, she thanked both President Obama and Michelle for their “wonderful hospitality”.

Someone who has been aware of the recent events explained that it was a routine strategy to engage people close to the leader as this could help achieve what was otherwise difficult to do through official channels.

“At a time when the first lady Kulsoom Nawaz is keeping a low profile, the administration would have searched for someone empowered around the prime minister and eyes would have eventually turned to her [Maryam],” he said, adding that the administration officials also found it easier to communicate through her.

The US embassy did not comment on the issue. 

However, this is not to say that the American initiative came out of the blue; it appears that Prime Minister Sharif, and his government, have been behaving in a manner that has led the foreign governments to understand that Maryam should be engaged, an official said.

After all, Maryam has been very active in this term of Sharif.

Her twitter account is seen as a good source of information on the government. Soon after the government came into power, she was also made the head of youth loan scheme, but stepped down after the Lahore High Court questioned her qualifications to hold the post. Since then, she is known to play an important role in the government’s media policy – though most of this ‘media management’ is done from behind the scenes. Occasi­onally, she also attends PML-N meetings, publicly.

Her appearance on the scene – post 2013 – has led to great speculation that she is being groomed by her father to take over the party; a position that earlier was seen to belong to Shahbaz Sharif’s son, Hamza Sharif. Nawaz Sharif’s two sons are reported to not be interested in politics.

The trip to the US will simply add to the speculation in this regard.

Analyst Ayesha Siddiqa feels that Maryam is being groomed by Mr Sharif much like Zulfikar Bhutto trained Benazir Bhutto.

The way Maryam is being promoted is definitely not surprising in a country where dynastic politics is a trend. Siddiqa points out that by investing in Maryam, the Americans seem to be indicating that they see the Sharifs/PML-N as a major political force in the future.

But there is also speculation that Sharif himself also wants an informal line of communication with the US – something that Maryam could open and use successfully. This is something that the Bhutto family had always enjoyed and continues to enjoy – the recent meeting of Aseefa Bhutto with Hilary Clinton is a case in point.

After all, the relationship with the US is not limited to foreign policy and security. Historically, Washington has played a role in domestic power struggles, as revealed by the Wikileaks. 

Published in Dawn, October 24th, 2015

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