Nawaz Sharif on the cusp of power
ON A FRIDAY AFTERNOON IN EARLY MARCH, the two-time former prime minister and current leader of Pakistan’s opposition, Nawaz Sharif, inaugurated the refurbished Pak Tea House in Lahore—the old hangout of progressive Pakistani luminaries such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ahmad Faraz and Saadat Hassan Manto. (It was known as the India Tea House before Partition.) Sharif entered through the front door, surrounded by a contingent of security personnel in plain clothes who pushed through the crowd to sculpt a path for him. As Sharif was making his way up the cramped, winding staircase, a group of young men, presumably uninvited locals from the Mall Road outside, tried to force their way in; Sharif’s guards pushed the door on resisting hands and feet and shoulders and elbows until they were finally able to slam it shut.
“Pakistan’s writers and intellectuals are its assets,” Sharif said in a calm baritone, upstairs, where tea and fried sweets were neatly arrayed on a thick white tablecloth. “The reopening of the Pak Tea House is no less important than launching the [Lahore] Metro Bus Service project.” It was a canny little statement—the juxtaposition of two wholly dissimilar initiatives of the Punjab government, which is controlled by Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PMLN), and headed by his younger brother, Shahbaz—designed to please the small congregation of left-wing short-story writers and columnists present in the café.
Sharif spoke for about five minutes in sophisticated colloquial Urdu, shook hands with everyone present, and quickly exited the café to set off for Mardan, 500 kilometres away in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly known as the North West Frontier Province, where he was due to address a rally later in the afternoon. As soon as Sharif had departed, some prominent columnists flocked around the stooped, bright-eyed, 90-year-old Intizar Husain, Pakistan’s most venerated living fiction writer in Urdu. “Nice initiative,” the short-story writer Neelam Bashir said. She couldn’t help the sarcasm. “I’m going to vote for Imran Khan. At least he wants change.”
In March, for the first time in Pakistan’s history, a National Assembly completed its full five-year term. Campaigning is in full swing for the next elections, while the leading parties are negotiating the composition of a caretaker government that will rule until the polls, which are likely to take place in May. With its traditional rival, the Bhutto family’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), now headed by sitting president Asif Ali Zardari, plummeting in popularity, Sharif’s PMLN has emerged over the course of the last year as the front runner in the race to form the next government. Though the former cricketer Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has attracted a passionate following among urban Pakistanis—demonstrated by his massive October 2011 rally in Lahore—and mounted a new challenge to the more established parties, what Khan dubbed the PTI “tsunami” has not managed to sweep away the traditional bases of support for the country’s two large mainstream parties, the PPP and PMLN.
According to several recent public opinion surveys of voting intentions, the PMLN currently appears to be the country’s most popular political party. The most thorough poll to date, a survey of nearly 10,000 respondents in 300 villages and 200 urban localities, conducted by the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) and Gallup Pakistan in February, found 41 percent support for the PMLN, against 17 percent for the ruling PPP and 14 percent for Khan’s PTI. In Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province and Sharif’s stronghold—which represents 148 of the 272 directly elected seats in the National Assembly—the survey found 59 percent support for the PMLN, with the PTI and PPP trailing at 14 and 10 percent.
At the rally later that day in Mardan, before a huge crowd from Pakistan’s rightist, religious, trading class—Sharif’s true constituency—his speech was a more traditional campaign stemwinder, assailing the failures of the PPP government and trumpeting the promises of the PMLN’s recently released poll manifesto, with its heavy emphasis on economic growth and development. “They have given the people nothing but suicide attacks, targeted killings, scandals of massive corruption, high inflation and excessive load-shedding,” Sharif said, adding that Zardari had “sold the sovereignty of the country to the United States.” The PMLN, Sharif declared, would “restore law and order to the country”, resolve the Kashmir issue, improve ties with Afghanistan, eliminate load-shedding in two years, and bring the development initiatives it had pursued in Punjab to the rest of the country. He focused on projects that are close to his heart: laptop schemes, the creation of industrial zones, loans on easy conditions, the expansion of the motorway system he began in 1998, during his second term as prime minister. Nawaz Sharif is a builder, and holding forth on bullet trains and motorways gets him going. He was so palpably stirred by his own words that at one point, he raised a hand—the fair, unused hand of a wealthy Kashmiri-Punjabi—to stop the chanting crowd from interrupting his speech: “No slogans right now, no slogans right now, no slogans right now.”
Sharif professes to draw inspiration from Sher Shah Suri, the Mughal-era builder of roads and works who is credited with constructing the Grand Trunk Road that links India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. (On one of the PMLN’s official Facebook pages, Sharif’s round face has been photoshopped inside Suri’s bronze helmet.) In Mardan, Sharif promised the crowd he would build a bullet train from Karachi to Peshawar: the train would leave Karachi after the fajr prayer, at dawn, and arrive in Peshawar just in time for the evening isha prayer. He pointedly mentioned that passengers would have to perform only the afternoon prayer inside their cabins. It was a classic Sharif image, blending the promise of economic development with the rhetoric of religion. “The way he frames modern requirements within the framework of religion, or social conservatism, is frankly impressive,” the television anchor and columnist Nasim Zehra told me. “He’s the only one who can do it.”
At the same time, among a certain segment of Pakistani liberals, there has been a wary reconciliation with the idea of Nawaz Sharif. In spite of his flaws—corruption, autocratic tendencies, a limited attention span—Sharif has recast himself as a defender of democracy and a critic of military interference in civilian affairs. In stark contrast to the intrigues of the 1990s, when Sharif and Benazir Bhutto took turns ejecting one another from office in collaboration with the army, Sharif has spent the past five years in opposition without attempting to bring down the PPP government, and in fact stood with it against such challenges, to the extent that he has been lampooned as “the friendly opposition”. Although Sharif remains a deeply conservative industrialist with ties to Pakistan’s religious right, many liberals cautiously admire his stance on three key issues: bringing the army to heel, pursuing peace with India and defending parliamentary democracy—areas in which Sharif’s views have clearly evolved in the wake of his own ouster, imprisonment and exile 14 years ago at the hands of General Pervez Musharraf.
MANY IN PAKISTAN BELIEVE THAT SHARIF, whose anti-military views have hardened since 1999, has come a long way since he first entered politics in 1981, when General Ghulam Jilani Khan, the governor of Punjab under the military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq, recruited Sharif into his unelected cabinet. Sharif, then 31, was a conservative, obedient, pro-military businessman with a grievance against the deposed PPP government headed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, which had nationalised the Sharif family’s steel mills—all the ingredients the military was seeking in a new leader to offset the populist PPP.
Sharif remains an old master in the realm of Pakistan’s politics of patronage, and his strategy for the upcoming elections relies heavily on his traditional vote bank and the formidable PMLN party machine, with everything that entails: welcoming candidates with influence and existing alliances into the party, embracing a non-issue-based politics to attract anyone who can help the party win, and forging ties with powerful local figures rather than national alliances. The PMLN has had a populist tinge to it since Sharif declared autonomy from what Pakistanis call the “establishment”, a euphemism for the military. At the same time, Sharif retains a strong alliance with Pakistan’s informal establishment: the country’s conservative lobby of businessmen, traders and middle-class professionals. After throwing his weight behind the Lawyers’ Movement and its campaign to restore the Chief Justice, which began in 2007, Sharif has clearly aligned himself with two branches of the state—the judiciary and the bureaucracy—to check the power of a third, the military. In short, he is in understated opposition to the army, while nurturing the support of the country’s conservatives, many of whom are conventionally pro-military.