The Industrialist

If all goes well, Pakistan’s May 11 election will mark the first democratic transfer of power in the country’s coup-punctuated history. This is in no small part thanks to five years of ‘loyal opposition’ by conservative leader Nawaz Sharif, who this time refrained from backroom plots with the generals against the increasingly unpopular Pakistan People’s Party. In this excerpt from an insightful profile, The Caravan writes that the once and likely future prime minister has evolved from a tool of the military into a mild opponent of the generals, a supporter of the rule of law.

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 cafe.

Sharif spoke for about five minutes in sophisticated colloquial Urdu, shook hands with everyone present, and quickly exited the cafe 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 [electricity blackouts]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.”[…]

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. […]

In front of Lahore’s Jiinnah library, situated in the middle of a public garden of the same name, a fountain shoots long warm beams of water into the air. The building overlooking the fountain was constructed in the mid 19th century during British rule; it was a place where the colonial elite congregated for tea, drinks, bridge and dancing. In the 1980s the club was touched by Zia-ul-Haq’s civilizing zeal and converted into a library.

Rows of yellow roses and deciduous shrub surround the fountain. It is in this garden, around the fountain, that a young Nawaz Sharif would pant behind his father in the 1960s. “I used to follow him,” Sharif remembered. “Whatever he did, I did that too. If he was running, then I would run too. If he was walking, then I would walk too.”

That he followed his father in “whatever he did” is a telling admission on a broader level: it was on his father’s insistence that a diffident Nawaz got into politics. […]

Muhammad Sharif, a Kashmiri whose ancestors migrated to Amritsar, and soon after Partition to Lahore, built a steel business in Pakistan along with his brothers and cousins, which grew into an industrial conglomerate-with interests in steel, sugar and textiles-called the Ittefaq Group. In 1972, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto nationalised Pakistan’s major private industries, including the Ittefaq foundries. Reeling from financial pressure, Muhammad Sharif encouraged his eldest son to join politics after Bhutto’s fall in 1977 in order to protect the family’s business interests. […]

Though an upper middle-class Punjabi-Kashmiri family, the Sharifs were also Victorian in their way-tightly knit, religious, loyal, conservative. If conflict existed, it was neither described nor defined as an issue of concern. Nawaz was an obedient son: in later years, as prime minister, he repeatedly sought his father’s counsel-to the point where it became a national joke. Warraich, the journalist who observed Sharif at close quarters during his time in exile, told me that “the real love of Nawaz Sharif’s life was his father”, and recounted a scene from the family’s time in Saudi Arabia. “Nawaz Sharif used to bring his father into the room, on a wheelchair, and put him in front of the family. Even though by then his father could not talk, he used to bring him there, regardless, and talk to him about everything.”

I put the question to Sharif in exactly these terms: was your father the real love of your life? His response was unselfconscious and distinctly Punjabi in its desire to celebrate the obvious: “Absolutely correct. He was my mentor. I drew a lot of inspiration and guidance from him. When I was prime minister people made a lot of fun of the fact that aye Nawaz Sharif prime minister saara kuj Abba jee kolon jaa ke puchda aye! (this prime minister Nawaz Sharif consults his father on every matter!)” he told me. “But I felt very proud of it.” He added, in a lower voice, “Even if people said it tauntingly. Theek hai jee, agar Abba jee hain tou Abba jee ki respect karni chahye (Alright, if Abba jee is there, Abba jee must be respected).”[…]

If the polls are correct, and Sharif can retain his lead and form a coalition, he will take office as the first person in Pakistan’s history to become prime minister three times, and do so as a result of a historic transition from one civilian administration to another. But what does he want to achieve?

Any reasonably intelligent businessman can profit under a “pro-growth” government simply by knowing a few of the right people, so further money-making seems unlikely to be Sharif’s main motivation. Power, on the other hand, comes only from political victory. “People thought Nawaz Sharif was never going to come back,” Mehmal Sarfraz, a left-leaning journalist, told me. “More than anything else, in the kind of society Pakistan is, Nawaz Sharif wants to stay politically relevant. He has unfinished business.”

Sharif has not only survived, he has managed, after eight years in exile, to lead his party to the cusp of an election victory-and to do so while being in an understated opposition to the country’s most powerful institution, which many of his constituents still trust and respect. […]

In an expansive mood while in exile, Sharif told Warraich one evening: “Once the chief of army staff assumes his title, he begins to think of himself as a king, or super prime minister.” So if Sharif comes back to power, will he really put the generals into Suzukis? He may not go that far, but he will expect the military to heed his legitimacy. He will not rush into embracing India as a long-lost friend, but he will not be drawn into another military adventure. He wants to have a friendly working relationship with the United States and the international community, but he will neither accept them as masters nor spurn them as adversaries. He may once again crack down on the Taliban inside Pakistan-but if he does so, he will still accommodate, as he has always done, the deeply conservative sentiments of religious parties and groups. This, after all, is his history and his patrimony: an old and deep lesson from the real love of his life.

Read the full article at The Caravan

Mira Sethi