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Kulsoom Nawaz — A woman of substance

Updated September 12, 2018

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Kulsoom Nawaz Sharif’s car being towed away with her in it. The former first lady, who had replaced her incarcerated husband as president of the PML-N days after the military coup, refused to leave the car. She locked it and made it known that she was going nowhere.—File photo by Azhar Jafri
Kulsoom Nawaz Sharif’s car being towed away with her in it. The former first lady, who had replaced her incarcerated husband as president of the PML-N days after the military coup, refused to leave the car. She locked it and made it known that she was going nowhere.—File photo by Azhar Jafri

LAHORE: It was a racy build-up to the entry of the ‘lady of the house’. There was a hasty flight into exile. But before that there was a car chase.

A little more than 18 years ago, Begum Kulsoom Nawaz slipped through a police cordon that had been placed around her Model Town home the previous night to bar her from leading a protest rally against Gen Pervez Musharraf. Her ‘escape’ led to a car chase that ended when the police finally intercepted the car on Canal Road.

But the former first lady, who had replaced her incarcerated husband as president of the PML-N days after the military coup, refused to leave the car. She locked it and made it known that she was going nowhere. Eventually, it was an overhead crane summoned to salvage the situation that bodily lifted the car and took it to a police compound nearby. The standoff lasted around 10 hours.

This moment when she sat suspended in midair was the high point in Begum Kulsoom Nawaz’s short but eventful political career that started soon after Gen Musharraf, with the help of other generals close to him, ousted Nawaz Sharif. The former prime minister was finally sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of ‘terrorism’ and ‘hijacking’ a PIA plane bringing Gen Musharraf back from a tour of Sri Lanka.

Begum Kulsoom, who passed away in London on Tuesday, was a housewife with a postgraduate degree in Urdu literature from the University of Punjab — the daughter of a medical doctor and granddaughter of legendary wrestler, Rustam-i-Zaman Gama Pehalwan. She barely spoke in the public even as the country’s first lady and avoided politics until she was thrust into the limelight to protect her family. That eventful day in 2000, she created an image of resistance, bringing the PML-N out of the shadow of the establishment.

“There are two chapters of resistance in the history of the PML-N. The second one is this period since Nawaz Sharif was disqualified by the Supreme Court in July 2017. But the original one was written under the stewardship of Begum Kulsoom. Until she started challenging the military dictator, this aspect of the party was hidden from public view,” argues a political commentator who wishes to remain anonymous.

Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam were sentenced in absentia by an Islamabad accountability court to jail in the Avenfield flats case in July. They were arrested on their return home, days before the July 25 election.

“I wonder if it would have been possible to write the second chapter of resistance if she hadn’t written the first,” says the commentator.

Many an analyst argues that the most significant point in Begum Kulsoom’s political life was the creation of the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy (ARD), a broad-based alliance against the military regime with almost all the country’s major parties, including the PPP, on board. She went ahead with her plan for the formation of the alliance despite strong opposition from certain PML-N leaders such as Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, Ejazul Haq and Khursheed Mahmud Kasuri.

Begum Kulsoom was, of course, helped by veteran politician, the late Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan. But the fact that she successfully convinced her husband and most other PML-N leaders to sit across the table from Benazir Bhutto wasn’t a mean achievement.

It is another story that in just a week following the creation of the new democracy alliance, on Dec 10, 2000, the Sharif family left Pakistan for a 10-year exile in Saudi Arabia as a result of a secret deal with Gen Musharraf.

“It was the formation of the ARD that sowed the seeds of the Charter of Democracy (CoD) signed by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif in May 2006,” says Suhail Warraich, a senior print and TV journalist. “Begum Kulsoom, who was born into a prominent Kashmiri family from Lahore in 1950 and married Nawaz Sharif 47 years ago, put her husband on the path of reconciliation with Benazir Bhutto.”

But once she had done her job, Begum Kulsoom slowly withdrew from public view. She was nowhere to be seen during Nawaz Sharif’s third term in office even though her assessment of political matters and people was considered flawless in the Sharif household. “She was a typical eastern woman who would do anything to protect her family,” says Warraich.

True. But she never refused to play a role whenever she was called upon. It was Begum Kulsoom who went to see veteran politician Javed Hashmi when he decided to quit the party and join Imran Khan’s PTI. She couldn’t convince the politician from Multan to change his mind but her effort reflected two things: she was always there to help her husband, and she had enough influence over him to change his opinion on even political and party matters.

The PML-N fielded her for by-election in NA-120, a Lahore National Assembly seat that was vacated following the disqualification of her husband last year. By the time Maryam Nawaz started canvassing for her mother in the constituency won five times by the jailed prime minister, she had already been diagnosed with cancer and left for London, never to return home alive. In her death, we have lost a woman who transformed the party and politics of her husband and fiercely challenged a military dictator in his heyday when a lot of men from her own party chose to cooperate with him.

Published in Dawn, September 12th, 2018