Entrance to Raiwind palace, 1998 -Photos by the writer
Entrance to Raiwind palace, 1998 -Photos by the writer

The year: 1998. The place: Raiwind Palace. The occasion: a primer on the Sharifs’ wealth and philanthropy. The audience: Islamabad and Lahore media. The mood: nouveau riche.

On a July day when the monsoon had broken with soaking heat and humidity triggering a cascade of sweat, there we were, packed in a bland hall with glaring neon lights, listening to the good deeds of the father, son and grandson. Earlier that day, we were driven from Islamabad to Raiwind Palace outside Lahore. ‘We’ meaning the Islamabad press corps. The junket was perhaps information minister Mushahid Hussain Sayed’s pet idea to introduce the media to Abbaji, the senior Sharif. Pater was quite an enigma as the steel titan responsible for the Sharifs’ unbound fortune. Why? Because the media’s growling appetite for Sharif affluenza needed whetting.

Abbaji’s word was law. All knew he was a political animal and a moneymaking machine rolled into one. The desi Saatchi & Saatchi PR outfit that the Sharifs had hired had propped up the 80-plus pater of the prime minister and the chief minister to Himalayan heights, equating him with the likes of Joe Kennedy, the maverick head of the Kennedy clan. The hard truth was that the House of Ittefaq was built from the benevolence of Gen Zia. As a front-line state, Pakistan was flooded with dollars — courtesy the CIA opening up its money taps to fight the Soviets. President Zia generously rewarded the iron merchant from Lahore’s Brandreth Road after Bhutto had nationalised the Ittefaq empire.


The Sharifs’ thoughtlessness and utter contempt for the Fourth Estate was meanwhile taking a heavy toll on our patience. We wished to get away from the stifling hall and sermons on their philanthropy


Mian Mohammad Sharif, along with his strapping sons Nawaz and Shahbaz, rose like the phoenix to build up a new business empire within a span of 10 years. The power brokers of those days recall how the Sharif trio sat for hours outside government offices to curry official favour. Flasks of special fruit-of-the-season juice freshly squeezed and hand-delivered at the doorstep by the Sharif trio was a common sight. By the time Zia perished in a plane crash in 1988, Nawaz Sharif, firmly entrenched as chief minister Punjab, had amassed legendary wealth.

As prime minister in his second term, Nawaz Sharif waved his magic wand to erect a humongous edifice just in 17 months, putting Raiwind Palace on the map of Pakistan and the front pages of newspapers! Once again, the ‘genius’ behind this mega-mansion was the father. But the word ‘corruption’ spread like an inferno across Pakistan. Soon, damage control kicked in with the Sharifs throwing open their ‘palace’ doors for the national media to gawk at.

The family Mercedes -Photos by the writer
The family Mercedes -Photos by the writer

On that July day, 18 years ago, Hussain Nawaz Sharif, the then 26-year-old First Son , proceeded to give a sermon to a few hundred sweaty news people who were packed like sardines. The 80-minute session felt like a sweatshop, with only two fans running to keep us cool. First, he put on a prayer cap to look pious then took it off. Lal sherbet saved the day as we were dropping off from dehydration when Hussain began with thetilawat from the Holy Quran. Setting the tone with his Islamic underpinnings, we now waited with bated breath to be enlightened on the secret of the Sharifs’ empire.

Despite minister Mushahid Hussain vetting the younger Sharif’s presentation and elocution skills, the speaker lost us as he droned on about the Sharif ‘medical city’ and ‘educational complex’. Meanwhile, Grandpa Sharif and Uncle Shahbaz merely sat with a group of clerics staring aimlessly around. Why didn’t Mian Mohammad Sharif address us? Perhaps we would have learnt something that soggy afternoon. Why didn’t he open up his heart and soul to share his dream of this mega project becoming a reality?

Raiwind could have been a celebration to the life and times of the head of the Sharif household. We could have been a part of the visionary’s life journey and witnessed the travails and tragedies he faced bravely to overcome political adversity. Instead all three Sharifs looked hunted. The Lahore press (most vibrant and bold) lashed out at them. Hussain appeared well prepared for the brickbats. Not once did he buckle under the unkind and cruel comments that came his way.

“You’re a kid, we want to hear the senior Sharif,” shouted one reporter from the back. Peals of laughter followed. Finally chacha Shahbaz took the floor. In his inimitable way, the Punjab chief minister tried bulldozing the tough questions asked of his nephew. Perhaps he couldn’t take the heat anymore as all the air-conditioning vents were soon directed towards where our hosts sat basking in the cool air unlike us ordinary ‘hacks’ shrouded in the stale hot air. The Sharifs’ thoughtlessness and utter contempt for the Fourth Estate was meanwhile taking a heavy toll on our patience. We wished to get away from the stifling hall and sermons on their philanthropy.

What was the urgency for the Sharifs to lug hundreds of press people to Raiwind? What did they want to reveal after Jamaat-i-Islami’s Qazi Hussain Ahmed had earlier spilled the beans on their corruption. At a time when the IMF was giving finance minister Sartaj Aziz sleepless nights and the finance ministry in turn taking foreign loans to be paid by future generations of Pakistanis, the First Family was blowing its own trumpet of philanthropic triumphs at Raiwind!

Imagine the amount of government funds blown up in per diems, hotel accommodation, travel and food that day. Top guns of the information ministry, Mushahid Hussain and Pervaiz Rashid, were present to ensure that the Sharifs got good press coverage. They ridiculed Qazi Hussain Ahmed’s facts and figures on Sharif ‘corruption’ that the duo claimed to be false. Instead, we were shown around the Sharifs’ living quarters, displaying how simply they lived, ate and prayed in the 5,400sq feet of residential area. Hussain allowed us to roam around in their kitchen and bedrooms. The fact that they opened up their homes to the press while their womenfolk were moved upstairs spoke of their humility and simplicity, we were reminded repeatedly by our handlers. But what about their “golden buggies” that one had heard of?

The fact is that Rs800 million were used up from taxpayers’ money to spruce up Raiwind Palace for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to stay when he visited Lahore every weekend in his second term. Was that fair?

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, April 24th, 2016

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