The social graces of Nawaz Sharif
I cannot think of a better way of starting this blog than with personal recollections of Nawaz Sharif whose triumphant long march drew the world’s attention to the Pakistani civil society that yearns for modern democratic institutions—not the Qazi Courts the Taliban got at gun-point in Swat and elsewhere in battle-torn NWFP.
Who exactly is this man whose brawny politics has remained unaffected by the grave risks it entails for his business family counted among the country’s richest? On first introduction, he comes across as one who loves the good things of life. Have a meal with him and you’d know how much of a foodie he is.
The chandeliers, exquisite cut glass vases, wall hangings, the curtains and the mahogany furniture in the spacious room where he receives guests at his sprawling farmhouse near Lahore, are worth a fortune an ordinary Pakistani cannot aspire to build in a life-time. But there is about Sharif an earthy touch, a friendly demeanor that didn’t come easily to the stiff-upper-lip Benazir Bhutto.
“Yeh desi Murgi key hai, kam se kam do tukdey lena,” he whispered as I made my way to a tray-full of tangdi kebabas at his lavish Iftar party after the 1997 poll campaign that returned him to power with a thumping majority.
Knowing we had deadlines to keep and were in a hurry to leave, he had the social grace to lead The Hindu’s Malini Parthasarthy and me to the dinning room ahead of hundreds of other invitees.
A perfect host— that’s what Sharif always is. More recently, he stood waiting in the portico after guards at the outer gate took unduly long checking out our credentials when I turned up in the company of a Pakistani friend they weren’t expecting.
“I’m so sorry they made you wait that long,” said a profusely apologetic Sharif as I introduced him to my friend Sattar Khan, a journalist who jocularly presented himself as my driver (Indian pitarkar da driver) to demand a cup of tea that would suit a truck driver’s palate: “Mian Saab, truck draivaran wali chaa palao” Cups full of strongly brewed masala tea arrived in no time but went cold as we engrossed ourselves in a conversation on Musharraf, Zardari and the late Benazir. Midway through the interview, Sharif asked his khansama (cook) to prepare some more tea with similar tang and colour: “Yeh puraney cup le jao aur isi rang mein naye chai banao.”
The rough and tumble of politics hasn’t dented his business instincts. At a meeting in Islamabad a day after he pitted a retired Supreme Court judge against Zardari in the presidential election, he asked whether the Ambani brothers, Mukesh and Anil, were still among India’s richest. “Yes, very much so, Mian Saab,” I replied.”Oh, even after they’ve split the family wealth,” he wondered.
The PML leader has indeed traveled a long distance since his political debut in the 1980s as a Zia acolyte. In a role-reversal few had expected at the time, Sharif fought in 1993 the civil-military establishment with which Benazir patched up to secure power the second time. His refusal to take dictation from the then President, Ghulam Ishaq Khan forced early elections despite his dismissed government’s reinstatement by the Supreme Court.
Sharif lost at the hustings but made for himself a permanent place in the national psyche by refusing to bury the hatchet with GIK after the historic court judgement.
“Why can’t you let bygones be bygones and make up with the President,” I asked at a press conference. His media advisor who has since defected to the pro-Army PML (Qaid), Mushahid Hussain stonewalled the question.
As I was leaving after the press meet, Sharif sought me out. “You had a valid point. But I have now an (anti-establishment) constituency to keep.”
It was that credo that drove his long march for the dismissed judges restoration 16 years later. This time around, the establishment buckled. For politics isn’t merely about being street smart, which Zardari undoubtedly is.
It’s more about stirring up the streets.