Since news broke last Friday that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would undergo open-heart surgery in London, it has been the main story across both electronic and print media.
From the Sharif camp, it was none other than the prime minister’s daughter, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, who took charge of the media management, feeding the press updates on the medical condition of her father.
There can be no doubt that the life of its chief executive matters a lot for any country, but the prime minister’s heart condition was doubly worrying, as he had to chair important meetings prior to the presentation of the federal budget, which he conducted via video link.
Coming back to that fateful Friday when the news first broke, the Prime Minister’s Office chose Dr Mussadik Malik, one of his lesser-known spokespersons, to break the news to the nation. It was Dr Malik who spoke to the press and provided details of the planned surgery.
But for reasons best known to the Sharif family, the official media machinery of the Prime Minister’s Office and Information Minister Pervaiz Rasheed remained aloof from the development, even though the minister is the government’s primary spokesperson.
From here on out, Maryam was the centre of media attention, providing up-to-date and regular updates on her father’s condition to his adoring public via her Twitter account. From announcing the prime minister’s decision to undergo major surgery, to tweeting his first picture after the procedure, Maryam’s Twitter feed provided minute details about how much time the patient would spend inside the intensive care unit (ICU), as well as his tentative plans to come back home.
When Maryam didn’t accompany the Sharif family contingent – including Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and his sons – that left for London last week, eyebrows were raised. But it became obvious that the prime minister had chosen the heir apparent to his political legacy to stay back. On inquiry, Dawn learnt that she had been tasked by her father to look after her ailing grandmother, who couldn’t travel to London owing to her advanced years.
But Maryam’s permanent presence at the Prime Minister’s House, in her capacity as the prime minister’s ‘dependent’, has raised certain questions.
“If the Sharif family has chosen Maryam as the focal person to feed the ever-hungry electronic media, it is their personal decision. But the fact remains that Nawaz Sharif is also prime minister of this country, and the dissemination of crucial information about his health should have been handled through official channels,” a retired federal secretary who had served at the Prime Minister’s Office told Dawn.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the former secretary said that the Prime Minister’s Office also had a special position for the prime minister’s personal doctor, whose job it was to keep an eye on the leader’s health. “I think office of the medical officer would have been the best forum to relay information about the health of the prime minister,” he noted.
But no matter how noble the PML-N’s intentions, this has given their critics – especially the PTI – more ammunition.
“This is yet another example of the highly-personalized way they run government and party affairs: I personally have nothing against Maryam, but this is not the issue of the succession of a just any private citizen; this is the prime minister of Pakistan we’re talking about here,” commented a senior PTI office bearer.
“I have personally seen her give interviews on over half-a-dozen primetime TV shows, deliberating on the health of her father and making innuendos against his political adversaries; every possible attempt has been made to gain the sympathies of the general public,” said the PTI leader.
“No person in their right minds would go politicking over health issues. The health of any head of state around the world is official business and must be dealt in the same vein,” the leader concluded.
Maryam’s stay in the Prime Minister House and her reported engagement with the strategic media cell, have been regularly discussed on the media of late. Now, after her name surfaced alongside her brothers in the Panama Papers leak, questions will be raised whenever she tries to conduct official business.
According to PML-N insiders, Maryam will certainly be playing a key role, both during the next election campaign and in managing party affairs.
“After the Lahore High Court ruled against her appointment as head of the Prime Minister’s Youth Loan Scheme, she has been keeping a low profile. But it is no secret within the ruling party that she is their future leader and already givers her input on various issues,” said a serving PML-N lawmaker, who is privy to her role at the Prime Minister Office.
Published in Dawn, June 3rd, 2016