An hour into the flight from Lahore to Nawabshah, the Citation Bravo his election campaign had chartered hit turbulence. The seatbelt signs blinked rapidly. The engines wailed. And God’s name quivered the lips of the less well-traveled passengers. But Nawaz Sharif, who had just said his afternoon prayers, kept his countenance. He sat there stoically, flashing slight disappointment at the panic around him. “It’s because of this,” he finally said, pointing to a bank of clouds to his left as the aircraft stabilized. “It is very, very close. It’s thunder.”
Sharif, a former twice-elected prime minister, is used to the turbulence. Three days earlier, on April 19, the larger jet he had chartered had to make an emergency landing after its windshield developed a tear. Almost 14 years ago, the Army overthrew his government, jailed him and several of his family members for 14 months, and exiled them to Saudi Arabia for seven years. Pakistan, the Army-led government had said, was done with the Sharifs.
But today’s winds favor Sharif and his resurgent Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), the frontrunner in the May 11 elections.
The general who ousted his government in 1999 is now under house arrest in Islamabad. “I’m not a man who believes in revenge,” Sharif tells Newsweek. “If there was anything personal between me and him I’ve forgotten that,” he says of Pervez Musharraf, the former Army chief and president.
The Army is maintaining a studied neutrality, and is determined the elections will proceed on schedule despite the rising incidence of elections-related attacks. Rival parties which were part of the coalition federal government until March are under attack from the Pakistani Taliban, and whatever little campaigns they are waging on cable television and through newspaper advertisements are, characteristically, poorly structured. The judiciary and the media continue to zealously remind voters about the lapses, actual and imagined, of the previous government.
Sharif’s campaign schedule is grueling, but he’s being assisted by his daughter Maryam, a popular new face of the party who is herself not running, and his untiring brother Shahbaz, who until March was the chief minister of the Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province. Cricket legend Imran Khan—the man who shouted “Change!” in a crowded theater—is also campaigning aggressively, but his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf is trailing behind Sharif’s party in voter surveys. It’s appears a foregone conclusion that Sharif, 63, will return to the Prime Minister’s House in Islamabad. He’s barnstorming only to ensure he wins enough seats to form a stable enough government, an imperative for Pakistan after five years of rambunctious, rickety coalition politics.
The Past Is another Country
Like with any politician, there is an uncharitable disconnect between who Nawaz Sharif really is—or at least appears to be in unguarded moments—and the effigy his critics have craftily manufactured. Seldom credited for his patience or depth, Sharif is intensely private, with kind features and winning humor, and by all accounts a much changed man since he was last prime minister. After he won the 1997 elections, Sharif squared off with two Army chiefs and the country’s chief justice, with journalists and businessmen, and was laid low by a subordinate parading as an accountability czar. But one by one, Sharif has patiently defied the cynical, ungenerous expectations of his detractors and buried the old misgivings about him.
Some of the old accusations were incredulous to begin with. “My mood has not improved with an unsubstantiated report that some elements wish to burn down my house in Islamabad and make it look like a short circuit,” Benazir Bhutto, another twice-elected former prime minister, wrote for Slate at the time. “When customs officials are punished for performing their duties, when police officials are accused of extrajudicial killings, when senior bureaucrats are tortured into making false statements, there will be a deep crisis,” she added. “The politics of revenge has frightened capital and paralyzed the economy.”
The hyperbole flowed from the heated, bitter drama between Sharif and Bhutto, but it bore a touch of truth. Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party is currently airing advertisements blaming the country’s violent power shortages on Sharif’s party, suggesting that there would not have been an energy crisis had the PMLN allowed projects approved by Bhutto in 1994 to proceed. A 2005 World Bank report, Lessons from the Independent Private Power Experience in Pakistan, appears to support the PPP’s position. “The Bank received numerous messages that coercive tactics (e.g. arresting/interrogation of [power-generation] company officers and sometimes family members) and threats of project cancellation were being used in attempts to obtain tariff reductions,” it states. “Perceptions by the project sponsors of excessive coercion, harassment, and heavy-handed legal and other actions … contributed to Pakistan’s fall from grace in the eyes of the international private sector community.”
“I don’t know,” says Sharif in response to the World Bank’s view, “maybe someone may have done that.” He is taken aback by the allegations of coercion, emphasizing that he did not and does not approve of such behavior, “Never, never. I think someone might have misbehaved with someone, but I didn’t authorize that or sanction that at all.” His government, he says, worked to rationalize and lower the prices the Bhutto government had agreed to pay private-sector power producers. The revisions resulted in savings of $6 billion, he says, adding that no project was scrapped. Now more than ever, high-risk Pakistan needs local and foreign investment for an economic revival: “It’s against the interests of Pakistan to discourage foreign investors or to create hurdles for them or use any highhandedness,” he says.
Chronic power outages have crippled industries, swelled the ranks of the unemployed, roiled everyday life, and suppressed GDP growth, according to official estimates, by 2 percent. The outages have led to demonstrations, and deaths, every year since 2006, when Musharraf was in office. The continued absence of electricity from homes and industries—for up to 18 hours daily in some parts of the country—has catalyzed public anger toward the PPP. As the summer sweeps in, the situation will worsen with air-conditioning driving up demand further.
Sharif points to the failure of the recent PPP-led government to ramp up the country’s electricity-generation capacity the five years it was in power. “The biggest problem we’ve been facing is load-shedding,” he says. “They’ve not done a wee bit for that. And they’re holding me responsible for this? Am I responsible for the misconduct of the Peoples Party government?” (On the flight back to Lahore, Sharif is fascinated by the fence India has built along its border with Pakistan, its lights always on. “The only place visible in Pakistan where there’s no load-shedding,” it is remarked. Sharif laughs.)
One by one, Sharif has patiently defied the cynical, ungenerous expectations of his detractors and buried the old misgivings about him.
To expiate excesses past, Sharif has kept the impatience of his colleagues in check by resisting the temptation to side with the generals—as he easily could have—to prematurely terminate the PPP-led government in Islamabad. “I’m the happiest man that the former Parliament completed its full term,” he says. “Had [the 1997 Parliament] also done that, it would have been good for the country.” He risked limb and political life fighting for the reinstatement of judges sacked by Musharraf, leading two marches on Islamabad—and in the process briefly losing his party’s government in the Punjab.
His relations with the press today are mostly mutually reverential, his political skin much thicker. Ayaz Amir, who recently quit Sharif’s PMLN, continued writing columns while in Parliament that didn’t always toe the party line. In his recent columns, Amir has called Sharif’s accomplished ex-chief minister brother “Punjab’s little Hitler” and his provincial government’s deeds “a line of expensive and directionless gimmicks.” Sharif says Amir is upset about the party’s decision to go with a stronger candidate from the columnist’s constituency of Chakwal. “Although Ayaz Amir sahib has written so many articles against the policies of our government, against the policies of our party, also criticized many individuals in our party, we never called for his explanation on any of these issues,” he says. “He’s a professional writer. I read every article he wrote. I never expressed or harbored any anger or adverse view.”
And as for Saif-ur-Rehman, the stained accountability zealot, Sharif hasn’t taken his call in years. Sharif admits that the country’s anticorruption efforts under different regimes have been at best flawed and at worst witch-hunts. “One cannot say that any institution which has carried out the accountability of others was neutral or independent,” he says, adding that the accountability process “must never be under [the control of] the administration.”
Pride isn’t an issue for Sharif. “We’re all prone to make mistakes, we’re all human,” he says in a soft, low voice. “I think the lesson is that we should reform ourselves, we should learn lessons from our mistakes, mend our ways, mend our policies, and mend our behavior.” Jail and exile chastened him and provided perspective: “I reflected on what had happened, on why and where I went wrong, on why I was not able to do the things that I really wanted to do, on who prevented me from doing that, on the quality of advice of my colleagues, on the policies I was pursuing, on my follies… I think when you look back and think about these things, you get an answer.”
The answer came to Sharif in prison. “I spent 14 pernicious months of my life in jail,” he says. “I was watching TV from a small cell in Landhi Jail. I was rotting in that small cell, and there was a debate on the BBC about the biggest achievement of India since its independence. And there were all these former prime ministers sitting across the table, and everyone was putting across his point of view. After an hour and a half of debate, the consensus was that the big achievement of India is that India has upheld the sanctity of the ballot box.” Had Pakistan done the same, Sharif, of course, would not have been behind bars, and may perhaps have missed this program altogether. “Sanctity of the ballot box,” he says. “Nobody said the nuclear bomb. Nobody said roads, bridges, and highways. Nobody said anything else.”
The realization stuck with him. Sharif and Bhutto signed the Charter of Democracy—an agreement pledging never again to disrupt the democratic process by siding with the armed forces against the other—in 2006, when both were in the political cold. For Sharif, that agreement is sacred, especially after Bhutto’s assassination during the last elections. But, he regrets, the same can’t be said for Bhutto’s party. (Sharif has sincere admiration for Bhutto and her late father, an electrifying speaker whom he channels in his own stump speeches. He is also genuinely alarmed by the unraveling of the once-great PPP.)
“I was very surprised when democratic forces like the PPP and other parties in this country, they sat down with me [in 2008] and said, ‘Well, now that Musharraf has resigned, we have given our word to the stakeholders,’ and I don’t know what stakeholders they were referring to, ‘to provide total indemnity to Musharraf for all his actions,’ including [his imposition of emergency rule on] Nov. 3, 2007,” says Sharif. “I said to Mr. Zardari, what are you talking about? We had to walk out of that place. I said we would never do it come what may.” Sharif says he was “shaken” by the pro-Musharraf stance of Bhutto’s widower, President Asif Ali Zardari, and his coalition partners, including Awami National Party’s Asfandyar Wali Khan. “The Peoples Party is a senior democratic party. They have very clearly written in their manifesto that they would implement each and every word of the Charter of Democracy, but now they were going against its very spirit. I was very disappointed.”
Zardari in a Bow
At Dr. Rahila Magsi’s farmhouse in Jalwari Shah, Tando Allah Yar, the faithful have been lined up since 1 p.m. Sharif arrives at around 5:35 p.m. It is to be a short appearance. It is overcast, and he wants to make it back home to Lahore the same night. This trip to Sindh province, stronghold of the PPP, is important: Magsi’s father, Allah Bux, Sharif will note in his speech, stood by him through the worst. He’s come here to campaign for Dr. Magsi, a former mayor now running for the National Assembly, and her brother, who is also a candidate.
Sharif takes a seat atop the servant quarters on the Magsi estate. Between the pond at the foot of the improvised stage drained out to provide a security buffer and the green-domed mosque and brick kiln in the near distance, some 30,000 are gathered—not a poor show for the party in Sindh. The nationalist Awami Tehreek’s red-and-black flags flutter in solidarity with those of the PMLN, which is competing for only 14 out of 61 directly-elected National Assembly seats from the province, in deference, Sharif later says, to the practical and to the 10-party alliance he has forged here to outflank the PPP.
He had promised to bring Bhutto’s assassins to justice. Reflecting the damage done to the Bhutto brand since then, Sharif prefers now to pitch himself as Not Zardari.
“Can you see me from that far? Am I visible? Can you see me?” Sharif asks as soon as he stands behind bulletproof glass to speak. “This wall has been built between you and me…” he notes unhappily. “When Musharraf threw us out, Allah Bux used to come every day to our prison and used to say, ‘Nawaz Sharif, don’t get upset, good days will come and you’ll be vindicated.’ When I was in Jeddah and exiled, the first man to meet me was Allah Bux Magsi. These are not things that are forgotten. I’ll always remember.” Sharif remembers all too well how Musharraf cannibalized his party in 2002, so loyalty is now especially prized.
He is running on experience, nostalgia, and compassion—in seemingly equal measure. When he came to Sindh in late 2011, he had promised to bring Benazir Bhutto’s assassins to justice if he becomes prime minister. Reflecting the damage done to the Bhutto brand since then, Sharif prefers to pitch himself today as Not Zardari. “There was a reign of cruelty here these last five years,” he says. “Whenever we have come [into power] we have fixed law and order. There were no bomb blasts then. Do you remember when Nawaz Sharif was prime minister? We had ended the rule of dacoits. Whenever we end the rule of dacoits, we also end the dacoits.”
He stumbles for the name of Zardari’s spokesman. “No, no, not him,” he says, asking the crowd for help. “Yes, Mr. Farhatullah Babar, he said ‘why is Nawaz Sharif criticizing Asif Zardari.’” Switching between speaking to his audience and addressing Zardari directly, he continues: “What has Asif Zardari done that I should praise him? Saeen, ask. Name one thing you’ve done for the public. Are you seeing their ads on TV and in the papers? He can’t name a single thing done.” The anti-Zardari play elicits hoots of approval.
The PPP-led government did score some successes in office—but that’s an acknowledgement only a political rookie would ever concede on the campaign trail. Some of Zardari’s top accomplishments, like the 18th Amendment to the Constitution that redefines the relationship between Islamabad and the provinces, are barely built for show-and-tell. Sharif on the other hand has no shortage of physical markers of the work his party did in the Punjab. In education, it set up schools, a Rs. 10 billion endowment fund, and lavished laptops on gifted students. Sharif uses this: “Why weren’t Sindh’s children given laptops? Are these children lesser than anyone? Are they nationals of another country? Mr. Asif Zardari, you should have given computers here. Mr. Chief Minister of Sindh: why didn’t you give computers?”
Reaching out to religious minorities, the untouchables who traditionally vote PPP, Sharif says: “Those whose hearts have been broken, we’ll heal them and kiss their mouths and say come join us, help us with your hands. There’s no difference between you and us.” He points out that Zardari was nowhere to be seen in the days immediately following Pakistan’s worst-ever floods, which ravaged much of rural Sindh, three years ago. “He didn’t care. Who came instead?” he asks. “Nawaz Sharif!” the crowd replies. “I came not as a favor but as an obligation,” he continues. “I came during the floods. And where was Asif Zardari? London! Paris! This is the difference between us and them. We have done politics considering it worship.”
Near the end, Sharif promises to return to Tando Allah Yar “after Bibi and brother Irfan win.” He closes out the event by prompting the audience. “Pakistan…” he stretches the word to a high note. “Long live!” the gathered dutifully roar back. “Very good,” Sharif assesses in the calm register of a man satisfied, turns on his heels and leaves the stage.
The Sharifs spent big on the Punjab—almost a trillion rupees or three times more than the previous government—on education, health, water supply and sanitation, agriculture, IT, infrastructure. “Shahbaz Sharif has done better than even my own expectations,” says Sharif of his brother’s term as chief minister. “He’d start work at 5 in the morning and finish at midnight.” The first phase of the party’s signature project, the Lahore Metro Bus System, was commissioned earlier this year at a cost of about Rs. 30 billion. “A similar project cannot be completed in four years perhaps in other countries,” says Sharif, “he’s done it in 11 months.”
But while Sharif is proud of the work his party did in the Punjab, he says had he remained prime minister and not been jailed, Pakistan would have been in a far better place right now. Fewer things animate Sharif more than his fondness for building. “We built the Motorway from Peshawar to Islamabad and from there to Lahore,” he says, “if there had been no interruption, my government would have extended it from Lahore to Karachi and from there to Gwadar and Quetta and Ratodero.” His love of roads goes back to the two trips he adventured, in 1974 and another three years later. In 1977, he and a friend made it from Germany to Lahore in a week, driving 500 miles every day in Sharif’s Mercedes. “All the roads were good,” he says. Except for Turkey; the roads there were “terrible.”
His love of roads goes back to the two trips he adventured across Europe, in 1974 and another three years later.
By investing heavily in new infrastructure, Sharif’s ready-to-go Marshall Plan for Pakistan will create jobs, stimulate the economy, and connect goods to markets. He also has a Thatcher Plan. Prime Minister Sharif liberalized the economy, sold off deep-in-hock state companies to the private sector, and advocated free-market economics with passion. “The same banks whose losses were being picked up by the government are now paying taxes worth billions of rupees,” he says of his privatization program. “That was the first time denationalization was done, despite tough resistance [from then-president Ghulam Ishaq Khan].” Sharif believes privatization is the only solution for monopolies like Pakistan International Airlines and Pakistan Railways. He also points out that Pakistan’s economic reforms inspired India’s.
Another Sharif government “may lead to better growth overall for Pakistan, with the Punjab as the engine of growth,” says Shuja Nawaz, director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. But “Sharif will need to find ways to fund his many initiatives,” he says. Given Pakistan’s liquidity and terrorism crises, this will be a challenge. “A major test for him will be in fighting the militancy, starting in the Punjab. If he takes on the fight against radicalization, he could lay the foundation of a stable polity for years to come.”
Sharif’s PMLN government in Lahore was accused of making nice with terrorists, mixing denial and self-preservation. But whatever it did, or did not do, the province has largely been spared the fate of the other three. This was acknowledged by Altaf Hussain, self-exiled leader of the Sindh-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement party, who recently paid Sharif an unintentional compliment when he complained that electioneering is impossible in any province but the Punjab in view of attacks from the Taliban. Militants are specifically targeting Hussain’s party, the PPP, and the ANP—all coalition partners in the last federal government—raising alarm about the fairness of the upcoming elections. Voters will likely reward Sharif’s party for keeping Punjab peaceful.
“The situation is undoubtedly grave, we’ve lost a lot of lives” says Sharif. “Certain parties are going to be handicapped, but I think we’re all facing a similar situation.” Sharif, who survived an assassination attempt in 1998, says he’s received word from the federal government to limit his exposure and campaign appearances. As a result, Sharif is campaigning less than he would like. He’s making up to two appearances every day, fewer than the “four or five or six” he is accustomed to. “There’s still no substitute for polling,” he says. If elections are postponed because of the ongoing violence, that, he says, will “be more dangerous for the country.”
Crown of Thorns
Sharif is well aware that the privilege of power comes with its own peculiar burdens. For this reason he is pragmatic about the PPP’s Iranian gas pipeline project, which the U.S. has viewed as Pakistan thumbing its nose at its most generous donor. “Pakistan needs gas very badly,” he says, “and if we have a source of gas from Iran…” He doesn’t complete the sentence, treading with the caution of a man who is too close to the finish line to risk any failure. If elected, he may also rebrand and convert the Benazir Income Support Program into a nationwide microfinance initiative, with very non-microfinance interest rates of 3 to 4 percent, for the unemployed young.
He disapproves of the concessions the PPP made to the Army and to the courts to stay in power at any cost. Hypothetically, would Sharif agree to extend the Army chief’s term as the PPP did? “You can’t rule out the option of providing an extension to someone if he’s indispensable,” Sharif says. “But,” he adds, “I don’t think anybody is indispensable.” Does his alliance with Balochistan’s former chief minister Akhtar Mengal, who claims the Army is trying to kill him, help or hurt Sharif’s standing with the voting public and the generals? “We need to sit down with him and talk about these things at length, and if he has any genuine grievances, those must be addressed,” says Sharif. “We must not quit the political arena at this stage.”
He says he has told Mengal that their collective cause for the establishment of the rule of law is yielding results in the many trials of Musharraf. “Look, he subverted the Constitution, he fired the judges, he fired Parliament, toppled my government,” Sharif says of Musharraf. “He was the all in all, a man who was allowed by the court to carry out any amendment to the Constitution on his own. This is a joke, frankly.”
The rule of law also requires regional peace. Sharif wants to pick up from where he left off in 1999 with India, striving for normalization of relations through trade and economic co-dependencies. India will also be critical to settling down Afghanistan as U.S.-led troops begin their withdrawal next year. “We should facilitate the withdrawal. Pakistan should play a very positive role in doing that,” says Sharif. “And then, we should all sit down together, all stakeholders, and address each other’s concerns, remove those concerns, and launch a massive developmental program in the tribal areas.” Sharif sees the Aga Khan Foundation’s several initiatives in the northern areas as a possible roadmap for creating industries and employment to wean residents in the Afghanistan-bordering federally-administered tribal areas away from the militancy.
Building consensus will be necessary for post-elections Pakistan, he says. “Once the elections are over, all those parties who are present in the National Assembly must get together,” he says. “Together, we must make a pledge with the nation to pull the country out of the mess it is in. I don’t think this process should rule out or exclude anybody.”
Paws for Thought
Sharif’s sons, both running successful businesses in Britain and Saudi Arabia, have repeatedly exhorted him to retire from politics. Clearly, he has no such plans. At the same time, wishing to spare them the turbulence of a very public life, it is said that he hasn’t exactly encouraged any of his four children to come into politics. Glimmers of the old, all-or-nothing, battle-ready Sharif are apparent at his election stops. So how truly changed is the new, patient, thoughtful Nawaz Sharif, and how real his transformation?
When we land at Nawabshah airport, Sharif calls one of the two pilots over to his seat. “What was that?” he asks about the few bumpy minutes of the plane ride, knowing the answer. “Thunderclouds,” replies the bushy-bearded young pilot. Sharif looks at us, satisfied by this validation of his own earlier assessment. “What happens if you go through them?” he jokingly asks the pilot, setting up the question as a lesson for those around him. “A lot can happen,” the pilot responds. “Yes,” Sharif laughs, “but what is this lot that can happen?” The pilot’s face turns dour. “Sir,” he says, “The plane can be broken in two.” Sharif stops smiling. There is a faraway look in his eyes, and God’s name on his lips.
From our May 10, 2013, issue.