Nawaz Sharif has a remarkable ability to retain the image of a clean, mainstream leader despite such a tarnished record.
Pity the poor tiger: hunted to the brink of extinction, it now has to suffer the indignity of having its image expropriated by the likes of Nawaz Sharif and his faction of the Pakistan Muslim League.
With Musharraf setting up his own All Pakistan Muslim League, there are now so many clones of this tired brand that the voter can be excused for being confused. Sheikh Rashid has his own one-man party under the label of the Awami Muslim League, while Ejazul Haq struts around under the banner of the Pakistan Muslim League-Zia. And let’s not forget the ‘Q’ League, the Convention League and the Functional League. For all I know, there are many other Leagues lurking out there in the woodwork.
Despite this multiplication of Muslim Leagues, the one that matters is Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N. Now calling the shots in Punjab, it has a strong chance of forming the next government at the centre. All it has to do is wait for the next election, and power will fall into its lap like a ripe plum.
Being as well placed as it is, one would have thought its leaders would behave with a certain amount of dignity and decorum. No chance, as recent events and words have shown. Shahbaz Sharif’s bizarre plea to the Taliban to spare Punjab as his party and the terrorists were on the same wavelength was breathtaking in its insensitivity to public sentiment.
At a time when the entire country is suffering from a prolonged wave of suicide bombings that has left thousands dead and maimed, the Punjab chief minister’s craven appeal to the Taliban has caused a huge backlash. This newspaper has been flooded with letters from angry readers. Muhammad Jalal Awan writes from Lahore:
“Shahbaz Sharif’s recent statement imploring the Taliban to back off from Punjab undermines provincial harmony and stymies the establishment’s stance of the current more muscular strategy of rooting out the Pakistani Taliban’s strongholds in South Waziristan and Swat.”
Despite his protests of being ‘quoted out of context’ — the usual escape hatch for politicians caught with their foot in their mouth — the fact is that Shahbaz Sharif’s plea was a statement of the unvarnished truth. His party is indeed ideologically very close to the Taliban’s extremist position on a wide range of issues.
While public memory is short, let me remind readers that this is the same party that was on the verge of declaring Nawaz Sharif the amir ul momineen, or ‘commander of the faithful’, and making the Sharia the law of the land. Had he not been sent packing by Musharraf in 1999, the Fifteenth Amendment embodying these changes would have been rammed through the Senate the following year. This is one of the few acts I am grateful to Musharraf for.
In his two stints in power, Nawaz Sharif has been responsible for follies that the country has had to pay hundreds of billions for. The expensive motorway project and the yellow cab scheme spring to mind. And while Sharif is now known for his pious advocacy of a free and independent judiciary, let us not forget that it was his goons who stormed the Supreme Court while he was prime minister.
His current crusade against political corruption would have been more credible had it not been for the allegations that have long clung to him. His multi-million pound properties in London’s exclusive Knightsbridge are a matter of public record, as is his farcical tax return. Nevertheless, at a public rally, he recently made an impassioned demand that “looted money be returned to the nation”. Yes, that was the same rally in which electricity was stolen by the PML-N through illegal kundas attached to the grid.
Despite this track record of mediocrity, mendacity and extremism, Nawaz Sharif remains a front runner for power whenever elections are held. Seemingly, he can do no wrong in the public perception. He is the true Teflon man of Pakistani politics. This substance has made him impervious to the mud that sticks so stubbornly to others.
Imagine, for a moment, that Asif Zardari had begged the Taliban to spare Sindh because he was a closet fundamentalist, and was as anti-American as they were. All hell would have broken loose. There would have been demands for his immediate impeachment. He would have been accused of treason and worse. The army would have fired off a very public rebuke.
And yet, the furore over Shahbaz Sharif’s cringing plea to the Taliban is already subsiding. The media has moved on, and public attention has shifted to other things, mostly the sins of this government.
How to explain Nawaz Sharif’s remarkable ability to retain the image of a clean, mainstream leader with such a tarnished record? Even a thick coating of Teflon does not guarantee such an unblemished surface.
The reality is that the perception of his being a son of the soil has worked well for him. His early slogan of ‘Jaag, Punjab, jaag!’ (‘Wake up, Punjab!’) seems to have resonated deeply with his home province. Indeed, despite his claim to leading a national party, this is where almost all his support comes from. But with 60 per cent of the country’s population, Punjab is where national governments are made.
Another factor that endears him to the business community and the middle class is his firm adherence to the laissez-faire ethos. The ‘make money at any cost’ mantra has worked extremely well for the Sharifs, and core supporters are delighted to ride the gravy train with them.
People often overlook the fundamentalist streak lurking just below the surface. But every now and then, the mask shifts, as it did recently when Shahbaz Sharif let slip his identity of views with the Taliban.
Just as worrying is Nawaz Sharif’s subservience to the Saudi royal family. They are the ones who scooped him out of Musharraf’s jail, and granted him a luxurious exile. And it was they who determined when he would re-enter Pakistani politics. Clearly, they calculated that without him in the arena, Benazir Bhutto’s PPP could well sweep the polls in 2008.
Let us not forget that much of the Wahabi/Salafi violence we are witnessing today is a gift of the House of Saud. The last thing we need to have is their agent in charge of Pakistan.