A LOT of the PML-N’s politics in Lahore since the July general election has featured Khawaja Saad Rafique, supported by his younger brother Khawaja Salman Rafique. The pair has come under tremendous pressure from the investigators at the National Accountability Bureau, and besides, Saad Rafique has had to fight political battles to prove the PML-N’s supremacy in the party’s celebrated bastion. The gentleman’s personal mettle has come under a severe test in the few months leading up to the general poll and in the period since. His resistance in the face of the PTI advance in the political arena has been looked upon with rapt attention amid talk that others from the Sharif camp might have to follow the same course as the PML-N fights to survive this current phase.
There were signs that Saad Rafique was going to be selected for this role, which is as central and significant as the overawing presence of the Sharifs in the party could allow anyone from outside the dynasty. None more stark than his face off with Imran Khan in a Lahore constituency to die for. In a strange coincidence, the decibels he added to his refrain against the PTI and its leader brought him further towards the accountability spotlight, shone with ever greater purpose under the new order. It all culminated in the arrests of Saad and Salman Rafique earlier this week. Saad Rafique marked the occasion by expressing his trust in the courts, which now hold the key to the brothers’ future. An equally tough battle awaits them outside in the political field.
The son of a shaheed from the Z.A. Bhutto era who had fought and lost in the pioneering 1970 poll, the Khawaja from old Lahore has been lurking on the scene since the 1980s, his mother having kept the family flag afloat. Saad Rafique himself made a brief statement of his intent to join big-time politics in 1988. He had filed his nomination papers in a Lahore constituency, but was not what you would call a serious contender. It took him another eight years to finally have the confidence to stake a claim in the PML-N’s increasing share in the Lahore seats in the elected assemblies. He won a provincial seat in 1997 easily, as the Sharifs took over the city completely and also scored an unprecedented victory all over Punjab. He won again in the next election, and again, and it must have become a habit easily entertained until he ran into a PTI stumbling block in 2013.
The 2002 election was crucial to the Khawaja rise. The Sharifs were in exile at the time. The PML-N was looking for reliable caretakers to keep the Lahore seats warm until the original Sharif occupants could return and rightfully reclaim them for posterity. Having previously represented the area as a Punjab Assembly member, Saad Rafique was a natural loyal PML-N candidate for the old Lahore constituency in the National Assembly. He handed an easy and embarrassing defeat to a fading PPP he was well known for lambasting in his speeches.
There were signs that he would be selected for this role, a role as central and significant as the overawing Sharif dynasty could allow.
A decade later, as the PML-N finally recognised the danger posed to it by a PTI being primed for power, Khawaja was frequently heard extolling the virtues of an alliance between the PML-N and PPP. The transformation of the man from a firebrand politician sworn to oppose Z.A. Bhutto’s legacy was reflective of the new era of politics dictated by Imran Khan’s growing presence. That Saad Rafique saw it sooner than many others was evidence that he had come of age as a politician.
In between came the 2008 election. The Sharifs were back to claim their Lahore seats. This meant that Saad Rafique, who wouldn’t have wanted a demotion to the provincial assembly, now had to look for a new constituency. The Khawajas, as the prominent custodians of the Nawaz Sharif seal, were given a provincial seat in the vicinity of old Lahore, which is how Salman Rafique entered the assembly. He went on to enjoy some rare prominence as a minister in the Shahbaz Sharif government. Elder brother Saad, however, had to go find another national seat for his expanding ambition. He settled for an outer Lahore neighbourhood not far from where, it was said, he had been doing some real estate business. It was here that he was to meet his life’s biggest challenge.
Despite the territorial shift, it was smooth sailing for Saad Rafique in 2008. But it was the 2013 general election that exposed him to the limelight nationally. He was declared a winner from his constituency against the PTI’s Hamid Khan — but after a long tense delay and amid loud shouts that the vote had been grossly rigged. In time, this ‘fraud’ that Saad Rafique was accused of carrying out formed the basis of the huge PTI protest that signalled its intent and ability to topple the PML-N as the safest party to rule this country. It was here that the famous sit-in began. It later expanded far and wide to shake the ground the Sharifs were standing on.
On a personal level, the period between 2013 and 2018 was a most hectic one for Saad Rafique. He was increasingly being threatened by the accountability machine over his alleged dark role in some real estate business. That he had allegedly built his fortune during the ‘oppressive’ Musharraf regime raised eyebrows about his faithfulness to the Sharif brand. On the political side, however, his profile got a lift after Imran Khan decided to take him on in this year’s general election. Kaptaan won, but only just, which added to Saad Rafique’s story — of a man fighting the odds with determination and some tact. The corruption case against him places a lot at stake for his party. The prime suspect’s response to the various charges and accusations thrown at him, and the outcome, could set a course the PML-N could find hard to separate itself from. His could well be the example.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
Published in Dawn, December 14th, 2018