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Updated March 11, 2018


'Waqt Ki Awaz, Maryam Nawaz’ [Voice of the Times, Maryam Nawaz] they chant as their leader takes the podium at a convention for workers in Lahore.

This is not the Maryam of old; she has shed much of the tentativeness that was there during her initial public appearances. She has overcome the pauses in speech she inherited from her father, making them sound as if they originate from a habit to first deliberate upon everything that is relayed to the public.

This is Maryam Nawaz, the new face of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

The PML-N is not known to flaunt its workers too much. It is considered to be an out-and-out private family affair, Maryam being the latest one to join the in-house ‘council of the wise’ that runs the party.

This workers’ convention, where she is speaking now, has been necessitated by the by-election on the NA-120 seat in Lahore. The seat was won by Mian Nawaz Sharif in the 2013 general polls but he was disqualified in July 2017 in a case famously called Panamagate. Maryam made an earnest entry into politics during her father’s pre-election campaign in 2013.

Maryam continues to shed weight and sports hues that help build a halo of light around her. She is already a changed woman from the picture of her flashed purely out of a pressing election need in 2013.

The lady appears to be working hard to increase her worth as the new face that the party can rely upon. This is borne out by the extra time she spends with the people — the smallest of gestures on her part betraying just how aware and mindful she is of the attention she is drawing from people at large. Mindful and proud.

Ignoring financial scandals surrounding her family, she represents the non-compromising flank of the ruling PML-N, as it battles with the establishment. How did a would-be doctor become the party’s heir apparent?

The NA-120 by-polls were widely considered to be the most difficult election for the Sharifs in Lahore since 1988, when they first offered evidence of their powers over the city that were, in later years, frequently applied to thwart the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).

The PPP had since then shrunk drastically, giving way to the 60-something phenomenon called Imran Khan.

None of the old-mould politicians respected Imran Khan or liked the politics and presence of his Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI). Almost all were wary of him. Even afraid. One weapon in his armoury that had a somewhat unknown quality about it was Khan’s focus on the youth and their aspirations. Few veterans in the field, indeed, knew what these aspirations were and which trends these could lead Pakistani politics to.

If 60s is young, then 40s can’t be too far behind...

The reasons for many of the youth-specific steps taken by the PML-N in Lahore can be traced to the young, unique crowd that gathered at the Minar-i-Pakistan on Oct 31, 2011. Almost all of these measures — free laptops for students, induction of youngsters in the government as part of special task forces, loans for the youth etc — are sponsored by Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, who is determined to match Imran Khan’s refrain for change with action on his own part.

All with the possible exception of Maryam Nawaz, who was touching 40 when she emerged as counter to the PTI’s attempt to monopolise the potential represented by young Pakistanis.

The arrival of Maryam Nawaz Sharif over the last five years as a major player in the politics of PML-N has been a surprise many are still finding hard to come to terms with. Maryam herself believes that it is difficult for a daughter to enter politics as opposed to a son.

However, her words do not conjure up any inside stories of mutually competitive sibling rivalry involving herself and her two brothers, or her sister who is totally untouched by the limelight. The one individual that it brings into sharp focus is Hamza Shahbaz Sharif, the talented cousin she proudly boasts of as ‘mera bhai’ [my brother].

Cousins together, cousins apart

Hamza, almost the same age as Maryam, has been playing agent for his father and his uncle Nawaz Sharif for many years now. He is the troubleshooter who is pressed into service to placate angry party members — of whom every political outfit in the country has had too many. His jurisdiction has been rather limited to Punjab but, over the course of his expeditions to fix problems, he came to be regarded as the gentleman fittest to take the mantle from the previous-generation Sharifs whenever they decided to hang their boots up.

Maryam in the midst of supporters during the NA-120 by-polls campaign for her mother, Kulsoom | Online
Maryam in the midst of supporters during the NA-120 by-polls campaign for her mother, Kulsoom | Online

Hamza gave the audience the impression that he was inspired by his uncle Nawaz Sharif. He cultivated the image of a man who always had a lot of time and resources, someone who could stall and then solve an issue, for as long as he wanted to, at his leisure, for maximum effect. This was quite unlike the figure cut out by his father, who had to always exhibit impatience as a virtue and who had to always seek quick solutions to problems.

The Noon League for a long time was involved in a most vicious, the most obscene campaign against Benazir Bhutto and her mother Begum Nusrat Bhutto. Today’s new-wave PML-N workers take great pride in putting forward their ‘sister’ Maryam Nawaz as a true fighter for their cause.

But Hamza spoke like his uncle and kept what may be called a low-profile in comparison to the more swashbuckling style of Shahbaz Sharif and the unavoidable public presence of Nawaz Sharif. His legend grew through whispers about his successful conquests within the coterie.

By all accounts of what went on inside the four walls of the Sharif household, he appeared to be maturing as a worthy heir to the Sharif throne when in walked Maryam —older than him by just a year or so and lacking in the experience that he had diligently gathered over the years.

Shahbaz’s son practised politics as he watched his elders do it, when the need for bringing in some freshness to the Sharif fare was not as urgently felt as it was now. The emphasis of his mission was on keeping contact with the local PML-N politicians and through them, when and if necessary, with the workers at the grassroots. With public attention fixed on his father and his uncle, he was happy to, or was required by his elders, to keep a low profile.

The more recent stories coming out painted him as having perfected the art of alliance-making, or the ‘jorr torr’ as it is called in the vernacular. He would have had little idea that this conventional work would put a stamp on him that would jeopardise his marketing as ‘a natural’ and ‘new enough’ continuation to that of the two elder Sharifs. As the Imran Khan challenge grew menacingly, the search for a new face led the PML-N leadership to Maryam.

While other provinces have had women leaders of note, Maryam’s entry as a leader is a historic first in post-Partition Punjab. Her stature as a loving daughter, faithful wife and doting mother has also contributed to the cult of personality around her | Online and White Star
While other provinces have had women leaders of note, Maryam’s entry as a leader is a historic first in post-Partition Punjab. Her stature as a loving daughter, faithful wife and doting mother has also contributed to the cult of personality around her | Online and White Star

Hamza wanted to be like his famous uncle. He emulated his idol for years and carried Mian Nawaz Sharif’s blessings to whatever territory in Punjab he was sent to conquer. This, some of the political commentators would remark at the time, was still not enough to make him the ‘young’ and ‘change-seeking’ PML-N answer to Imran Khan.

The PML-N, rather suddenly, found another option in the charming Maryam.

Like so many women who married young, she is now relatively free, at around 40 years of age, to dedicate herself to politics. Her children have grown up, her husband has crafted a successful political career for himself, capable of delivering the occasional off-beat story to the journalists forever looking to tap the in-laws of famous ruling families for stories of the, well, queer kind. He isn’t quite the Asif Ali Zardari many looked for in him but sometimes gave the impression that he was detached from his wife and family, only to return the next moment to reclaim his proximity with his partner and in-laws.

There was no furore as Maryam Safdar switched to Maryam Nawaz.

Gradually it was clear that, apart from the right surname, she had the ambition and the resolve of a person reacting to a painful injury. Her exterior, which did remind people of her mother as much as it was modelled on Mian Sahib, usually concealed the intensity inside. But there were occasions when she did reveal the extent of the hurt she felt because of the ‘conspirators’’ successive blows to her father.

Those rare moments increasingly became her trademark. She was to soon rise to be the emblem of resistance for the PML-N and a large number of Pakistanis who believed in Mian Nawaz Sharif’s cause.

It is a matter of conjecture whether Maryam would have joined politics had she not been rushed to do so in the run-up to the 2013 election. The passion with which she has been doing politics since would indicate that she was destined to, sooner or later, stand up and be heard. It is clear, however, that Imran Khan’s charge put her on a fast track.

Later on, allegations that she owned property in England — allegedly with money illegally channelled from Pakistan — turned it into a personal battle to clear her name. The archives are replete with material where Maryam is shown to be reneging on her previous statements to save a situation. Yet the property in London has proven to be much more difficult to battle, much tougher than the political insinuation thrown her way by opponents. These accusations are tough to answer and a typical Pakistani way of tackling them would be to appear to not take them seriously. Feign ignorance, as they say.

All in the family

Unlike the Bhuttos, the Sharifs are a remarkably private family. They are a typical trading family who do not flaunt their riches as opposed to the flamboyant showing off by the feudals (in the old, original sense of the term). Very little is known about their childhood, as if such information would be a breach of the tight privacy code.

Both sons of Mian Nawaz Sharif, Hussain and Hasan, have lived in relative obscurity, especially when compared to the stories — and of course, spicy rumours — about some other prominent, ruling families of Pakistan. The names of the two brothers, and also in rare cases, that of the second daughter of Mian Sahib’s, were only recently flashed regularly during the Panama case hearing.

In contrast, more information is readily available about Messrs Nawaz and Shahbaz when they were young, before their empire was taken over by Z.A. Bhutto’s government under its nationalisation programme. There are even a few pictures around in which Nawaz Sharif is posing with his sports car and there are occasional stories from their days in school and college. Overall not quite commensurate with their status, but Nawaz and Shahbaz still have some pre-politics records that have some interesting bits to offer.

Not so in the case of the next generation of the Sharifs, who have lived their early lives away from the glare of the public eye. For example, we don’t even know what kind of an impact the nationalisation of the family business, Ittefaq, had on the Sharif children born during the family’s supposed days of struggle in the 1970s.

Any accounts of distress suffered by the offspring because of the Sharifs’ role in politics are generally related to the coup by Gen Pervez Musharraf, which uprooted the Sharif family and forced them to resettle in Saudi Arabia, and as we were told repeatedly during the hearing of the Panama case, in high-brow residences in England.

It was left to Panamagate finally to, ever so slightly, lift the veil the Nawaz Sharif family chose to live behind. Yet, Maryam was always slightly better known of the siblings.

She was born on October 28, 1974 (according to her profile available on the internet) and is married to Captain Safdar Awan, who worked in Nawaz’s staff when Maryam was barely out of her teenage years.

Before this, the papers had already reported a case, which, essentially, aimed to highlight how the privileged in this country used their position for gains not due. It was her attempt to become a doctor which had brought her some bad publicity.

She — more her guardians — were accused of applying a clever scheme to get admission into the most prestigious and the most sought-after King Edward Medical College in Lahore. As per the formula often used, she first got enrolled into a medical college away from Lahore and later got a transfer to King Edward. It turned out the hassle was not worth it. Her journey to be a doctor came to an end when she got married.

For the next few years, there are very few snippets from her personal life which have made it to the public domain. Her husband, in the meanwhile, appeared to get some importance in the party but he was never promoted as someone who could at some stage get an important office in the PML-N. Captain Safdar’s most famous moments have been where he puts his faith in the service of those who are often identified in Pakistan as extremists.

It is not clear for what other-worldly gains the old soldier who opted for politics expects from his bias for the extreme right-wingers. Because, by his own account, he is amongst the lucky ones who have found a ‘houri’, right here on planet earth. He has found the houri in none other than his wife, he says.

In various other accounts, he has repeatedly been identified as a beneficiary of his marriage to Maryam. He was, at best, declared a safe bet from his National Assembly seat in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and by extension, he was someone who could maybe help in getting some extra funds for his constituency during the term of a PML-N government, simply because of his proximity with the Sharifs.

This is a far cry from the entrenched politics and credentials of the Sharif family.

The Sharif women in politics

It was presumed that Maryam was content with her life behind the scenes — just like her siblings. She now says that she stood by her mother during Kulsoom Nawaz’s brave fight to secure the release of both Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif and the family’s subsequent exile to Saudi Arabia.

But perhaps not too many can recall too great a role played by her in that episode, which played out when she was still in her tender 20s. Like her brothers and sister, she took the back seat, leaving Kulsoom to fight it out publicly on her own.

Years later, in 2017, Maryam recalled her mother’s struggle as she appealed for votes for Kulsoom in the NA-120 by-election.

“My mother struggled alone despite being a housewife,” she boomed. “She is not a candidate for your votes just because she happens to be the wife of Nawaz Sharif. [She is deserving of your votes since] she challenged a dictator at a time when everyone had gone into hiding.”

Maryam has repeatedly said she belongs to a conservative family and has on occasions drawn inspiration from Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah, the Quaid’s sister who accompanied him on his life’s struggle. She has had nothing worthwhile to say so far about another woman who came out to fight for her father’s legacy — Benazir Bhutto.

But Maryam’s presence in the PML-N has, in itself, been a kind of vindication of Benazir’s status as a woman politician in Pakistan. The Noon League for a long time was involved in a most vicious, the most obscene campaign against Benazir Bhutto and her mother Begum Nusrat Bhutto. Today’s new-wave PML-N workers take great pride in putting forward their ‘sister’ Maryam Nawaz as a true fighter for their cause.

This obviously offers another cause for agitation to those who cannot quite reconcile with the fact that the PML-N is now ostensibly — and ‘ironically’ — busy in rescuing the same institutions that it had systematically destroyed after the Sharifs made their debuts in politics in Lahore in the early 1980s.

The so-called progressive side to Nawaz Sharif is said to have been a gift of his years in exile. Let down by the right-wingers after the coup in 1999, Sharif allowed the non-hawks to come near him, especially during his days in exile in London, at the same time seeing merit in introducing measures such as the ‘Charter of Democracy’ that he signed with Benazir Bhutto.

One of the ‘roshan khayal’ [progressive] individuals integral to the coterie he built around him at the cost of pro-establishment elements such as Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan was Pervaiz Rashid. This is a gentleman who is not only quite prominent among the pro-Maryam group inside PML-N today, but who is also a prime representative of the strand that culminated in Mian Sahib performing previously impossible feats such as daring the establishment to end his politics.

In earlier episodes, Nawaz would meekly submit to orders to sign his resignation, with the likes of Chaudhry Nisar consoling him by his side. Now he was ready to fight. And it was no coincidence that he had the backing of Maryam who, as a resistance leader who happened to be a woman, most starkly signified the change that the PML-N claimed to have undergone.

This, perhaps, was a far greater shift than the change the PML-N had bargained for when it decided to counter the Imran Khan wave by fielding Maryam Nawaz. The compromise that the party might have thought about making with the establishment once it had proven its own efficacy and ability to change could not be reached. It was much more than just Imran Khan the party was up against and it was lucky to have someone of Maryam’s publicly known disposition to spearhead its fight against ‘conspirators’.

Maryam's cubs

By the time Maryam stood by her father at a series of jalsas [public gatherings] in the spring of 2018, she was already a name to reckon with, both within the PML-N and in national politics in general. She was considered a crowd-puller in her own right, and an organiser, delivering sharper responses to those she deemed her father’s opponents.

Of special significance in the story of Maryam’s rise is the ‘core group’ she is credited with creating.

This core group was responsible for verbally hitting back at all those who were out to use television channels to lambast the Nawaz Sharif government. The composition of the group led to intriguing questions being asked by Maryam’s detractors. Those drafted in obviously had fire in their bellies and a reason to be louder than other, more settled, members of the PML-N.

More importantly those men — Talal Chaudhry, for example — were new enough to not carry any labels that would put them in a certain category. They were fiery and fresh enough in the party to be tagged quickly as Maryam’s men. Not too long afterwards they were rewarded for their services with ministries at the federal level — which vindicated Maryam’s position of power in the party.

In earlier episodes, Nawaz would meekly submit to the orders to sign his resignation, with the likes of Chaudhry Nisar consoling him by his side. Now he was ready to fight. And it was no coincidence that he had the backing of Maryam who as a resistance leader who happened to be a woman, most starkly signified the change that the PML-N claimed to have undergone.

As the situation turned increasingly conducive to Maryam Nawaz’s chosen style of politicking, her influence also spread. It was clear that she was revelling in the conditions that, to an extent, her own brand of politics had created for her father. Having been pushed into a corner for yet another time in his career, the father appeared more and more inclined to employ the ever-willing daughter into manning the left plank in the party along with himself. She was the balancing act as Shahbaz Sharif went about exploring a compromise route that could land the party — even if short of a most prominent Sharif — back in power.

This was a far cry from what Maryam could have achieved had she been allowed by the court to act as a supervisor for loans to youngsters. She was disqualified as the prime minister’s youth loan programme chairperson and that could well have caused the initial hurt that set her on an angry course of action, heralding her as the future ‘revolutionary’ inside the PML-N fighting its old right-wing billing.

The option of the PML-N managing to ensure a handshake with the old establishment remains open. The moderates, most notably among them old Sharif associate Chaudhry Nisar, have stated just how offended they are by Maryam’s style. Mian Nawaz Sharif himself continues to subtly support a cautious approach by his party which is now headed by younger brother and long-time heir apparent Shahbaz Sharif.

For the time being, Mian Sahib seems to be in control of the two flanks that he obviously believes are vital to keep him running. Around Nawaz, however, are leaders and activists who are not just predicting that a split between the clashing groups — represented by Maryam and himself on one side and Shahbaz and Hamza on the other — is inevitable, they are hoping that a breakup is imminent.

The people in Lahore recall one particular incident just before the 2013 general polls to prove just how particular Maryam can be in pressing home a point. In that instance, she chose to briefly take part in a protest by Omar Sohail Zia Butt, her cousin and former MNA, who had been denied a PML-N ticket for the forthcoming election. The small incident was deemed to have profound meaning since everyone knew that the party nominees in Lahore carried the blessings of Shahbaz Sharif.

In recent days, one favourite occupation of the dynasty watchers has been to find out just how much control Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz exert over each other. Any shift in balance in favour of Maryam is going to require quick readjustments from all inside the Sharif stables.

Eyes widen when Mian Sahib is found essaying a popular form of public engagement at an Islamabad bakery days after Maryam was conveniently spotted by cameras to be buying bhatooras.

These signs of the daughter setting a model for Mian Sahib to follow must be closely monitored by all in PML-N — those who want the Maryam flank to take over and those opposing her confrontational positioning.

But above all, the fate of the PML-N is in the hands of those who are putting the party to the severest accountability test, and those who have the power to strike a deal with it or reject it. Indeed, the success of Maryam Nawaz in her present agitated, angry state is largely dependent upon what remains of the PML-N after the judges are through with it.

Apparently ready for the long haul, she can best flourish in adversity.

The writer is Dawn’s Resident Editor in Lahore

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 11th, 2018