Life in Exile
By Ashraf Mumtaz
Mian Nawaz Sharif as the Punjab Chief Minister,
the Prime Minister and the opposition leader, I
got an opportunity recently to meet the exiled leader
in Jeddah. The three meetings with him - all of
them in the presence of several others - first in
a drawing room and then at the dining table of the
grand Saroor Palace, presented a good opportunity
to assess how, and to what extent, Mr Sharif has
changed after having been deprived of power and
then thrown out of his own country. And the verdict
is that while the former premier has changed in
some respects, he remains pretty much the same in
most others. The account below will tell you why.
The Saroor Palace on Madina Road is where the late
King Faisal used to live. That the Royal Saudi family
is keeping the Sharifs there speaks a lot about
the depth and strength of the ties between the two
families. Nawaz Sharif is still treated like a Prime
Minister by the Palace staff, and there are many
among them who firmly believe that the relations
between Pakistan and the Kingdom would be at their
very best whenever the Sharifs could regain their
While all kinds of facilities are available to the
family in exile, there is little doubt that what
Nawaz Sharif is missing quite clearly is power;
absolute power. Such a sense of deprivation is only
natural to a man who remained a key player on the
political scene for about two decades, and had on
occasions outshone all his rivals.
What he is certainly not missing, however, is good
food. Good food - and in sufficient quantity - has
always been his weakness. When he starts eating,
he frees himself from all the worries of the world.
He has a taste for food from across the globe, and
knows fully well if something on the table is below
par. Cooks and chefs have to be extremely careful
while preparing various dishes to avoid any embarrassment
when Mian Sahib graces the dining table.
Those around him on the dining table also get an
opportunity to taste what they don’t even
expect to lay their eyes on elsewhere.
It is no wonder, then, that despite regular exercise,
Nawaz Sharif has put on a lot of weight, showing
signs of an emerging pot belly which was nowhere
in those good old days. He will do himself no harm
by cutting down on this ‘expansionism’.
When Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were bitter
enemies, the former had once taunted that her rival
“thinks with his stomach”. It will be
worth the effort to explore whether or not she has
changed her opinion after meeting the later in Jeddah
Interestingly, there was a time when a leader who
had worked closely with both of these leaders compared
the two former prime ministers, saying that one
doesn’t listen and the other doesn’t
understand. The question as to whether the situation
has improved over the years - and, if so, to what
extent - may find an answer after some more time
Back at the Saroor Palace, Nawaz Sharif recalled
a joke at the dining about three people who asked
one another how much did they normally consume.
While the two of them talked about the various quantities
of meat, vegetables, fruits and other edibles, the
third one, a Kashmiri, told his rivals that he could
not quantify what he eats, but can simply say that
his normal meal lasted about three hours.
The former Prime Minister told this joke only to
assert that Kashmiris - and he himself happens to
be a Kashmiri - have a taste for eating.
Apart from his gastronomic indulgence, Nawaz Sharif
has over the years learnt a lot about the use of
television cameras. During the chat he asked a cameraman
a number of technical questions which, even the
lenseman admitted, spoke a lot about the in-depth
knowledge of the former premier. He even shot a
meeting sitting on his chair, something he could
not be expected to do a few years ago.
Adding a touch of variety to the table was a Lahori
wrestler who has been performing Haj for the past
almost two decades. Nawaz Sharif asked him quite
a few questions about various wrestlers back home,
their wrestling skills and strengths. His long questioning
was a clear proof that he still has a lot of interest
in the profession of his in-laws.
Moving from the dining table to the dressing table,
Nawaz Sharif has had hair-transplantation, and after
several years of baldness he has once again started
using the comb. In fact, he uses it much more frequently
than other people do. Maybe the bristled hair have
to do something with it, or perhaps it is just a
psychological thing with such cases.
While he may have overcome his baldness, the transplantation
has meant that Nawaz Sharif has lost his identity.
Interestingly, brother Shahbaz Sharif has also undergone
the same process.
In Pakistan, the two brothers were once affectionately
called CT, BT (Choti tind, Barhi tind). They were
so addressed when Pakistan was under pressure to
sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which also
carried the acronym CTBT. Since one brother was
then the Prime Minister and the other was the Punjab
Chief Minister, people called them CT, BT. But as
the two Sharifs have now had their hair transplanted,
a friend of theirs commented in a lighter vein that
the issue of the ‘CTBT’ had finally
been settled for good.
In terms of routine, the breakfast is generally
followed by phone calls from friends, party leaders
and workers. Nawaz Sharif keeps himself updated,
and issues necessary instructions where necessary.
He also spares some time for the steel mill he has
set up with an interest-free loan from the Saudi
government. The mill is likely to play an important
role in the industrialization of the Kingdom.
Lunch usually is taken alongside all the family
In the afternoon, the former Prime Minister meets
visitors from Pakistan and elsewhere. Also during
the afternoon, an aide reads to him important news
of the day and columns that are received by fax
from Pakistan or downloaded from the Internet. Exchange
of views on the prevailing situation and random
gossip continue for about a couple of hours.
Then comes dinnertime and all those present in the
drawing room at the time move to the dining table.
Another couple of hours are devoted to dinner and
exchange of views on various issues.
It is mostly during these four hours that Mian Sahib
issues instructions to party leaders in Pakistan
on various matters. Though away from the country,
he firmly has the PML-N’s remote-control in
his hands. All decisions are approved by him, and
party president Shahbaz Sharif has little, if anything
at all, to do as the party chief. In fact, for most
of the party leaders and workers Nawaz Sharif is
the actual leader. They respect Shahbaz more as
a brother of their leader than as party president.
As regards the state of relations between the two
brothers, it is, honestly, quite difficult to say
anything with confidence. Apparently, both have
divergent views on a number of key issues. In terms
of basic approach, Nawaz takes refuge behind principles,
while Shahbaz wants to follow a pragmatic approach
to bring an end to the exclusion of the family from
the mainstream. But despite the yawning gap between
the two positions, the latter makes it a point to
refute the impression, saying that Nawaz was not
only his elder brother, “but also my leader”.
On many an occasion, he said he would quit politics
rather than betraying his brother.
The difference of opinion between the two brothers
also becomes obvious when Shahbaz talks of conciliation
with the rulers and underlines the need for burying
the hatchet, but the elder brother refuses to budge
an inch from his position.
Though it is hard to digest, maybe it is just a
coincidence that no one in the party supports the
viewpoint of Shahbaz, who, at least technically,
is the PML-N chief. Party leaders at all tiers are
opposed to a soft approach towards the military
rulers. In such a situation, there are more than
a few who wonder whose representative Shahbaz really
Some newspapers recently carried reports that Shahbaz
had taken control of his share in family assets
and was about to part company with his brothers.
During my three visits to the Saroor Palace, there
was no mention of the dispute at the time. Such
reports are neither contradicted nor confirmed by
anyone back home, but at least one family source
says the distribution of assets is just not possible
while the family is in exile.
Shahbaz Sharif’s third marriage with Tehmina
Durrani is being considered as a significant political
move which many say will take him close to the corridors
of power. It will be clear only in the times ahead
whether the initiative will give him any political
benefit, but what is certain is that the ruling
PML is very happy over the widening gap between
the two brothers.
A Minister who is very close to the President claims
that Shahbaz will do anything to get power. He also
says that for the sake of a deal with the PPP, the
government may delay the local elections and that
the schedule of the local elections would be announced
only after the outcome of the ongoing talks between
the government and Ms Bhutto.
The news about Shahbaz’s marriage was carried
by some papers on February 5, which was five days
after my third and last meeting with Nawaz Sharif
in Jeddah. During the three meetings, however, there
was no mention of the younger brother having tied
the nuptial knot yet again. Senator Ishaq Dar said
in a statement several days later that the marriage
had taken place several months ago, and that Nawaz
Sharif had come to know of it only through the media.
Ishaq is father-in-law of Nawaz’s daughter,
and, as such, his words are taken by many as those
of the former Prime Minister himself.
The question of the marriage did not crop up even
when former President Rafiq Tarar was cracking joke
after joke at the dining table, and at least one
of them was quite relevant to the situation.
As narrated by Tarar, a man returned from the mosque
stone-faced, and went straight to the bed without
talking to anyone. Finding his attitude a bit strange,
the wife asked him what was bothering him. After
some persuasion, the husband broke down. “The
maulvi said in his sermon today that wives will
also accompany their husbands to heaven, and they
will be the companions that have been promised by
Allah,” he moaned.
“But what’s wrong with that,”
asked the wife. “Well, if the maulvi is right,
I am ruined both in this world and the Hereafter,”
replied the husband!
Though the joke was enjoyed by those present at
the table, none had an inkling that it had a heavy
Shahbaz Sharif undertone to it.
It’s not clear yet whether or not Shahbaz
will be able to take his new wife to the Saroor
Palace where the rest of the exiled family is staying.
It’s a common knowledge that when Shahbaz
had contracted his second marriage, the wife was
not allowed to stay with the rest of the Sharifs.
The entire family had opposed the second marriage
and the former Chief Minister had to get her second
wife a residence in Lahore’s Defence Housing
Society. In fact, she was still living there when
Shahbaz had divorced her. If the values of the Sharif
family remain unchanged, it can be safely predicted
that the new wife will not be able to see the interior
of Saroor Palace.
One thing that bugged some of the visitors there
was the respect and honor being shown by the Sharifs
to Rafiq Tarar, who stayed at the President House
for as long as he could after Nawaz Sharif was ousted
from power and put behind the bars. He prolonged
his stay and left his cozy abode in Islamabad only
when he was kicked out of it. At a time when the
Sharifs waste no opportunity to slam General Pervez
Musharraf for doing what he did, their attitude
towards Tarar is beyond comprehension. If anything,
Tarar deserved a bit more flak, for he stayed back
despite being a longtime family friend who got to
the Presidency only because of the Sharifs. The
way it all happened, many believe that Tarar behaved
as if he was providing legitimacy to the military
regime. History might judge him as a co-accused
on that fateful night even though the Sharifs are
apparently averse to the idea of putting such a
tag on Tarar. On his part, Tarar is still bitter
that he was not allowed to complete his tenure.
He was willing to go with the setup for another
couple of years, but the regime sacked him unceremoniously.
At the Saroor Palace, he was quite critical of the
MMA leadership for having made a serious mistake
by extending cooperation to Gen Musharraf on the
17th constitutional amendment that ratified all
that he had done after toppling the elected government.
Then he narrated his own “tragic story”
according to which at least half-a-dozen times Gen
Musharraf had assured him that he would let him
complete his tenure. “But then he did not
live up to his word”, leaving Tarar a shocked
soul after being denied the opportunity to serve
If Nawaz Sharif repents his past cooperation with
the dictators, he should at least keep a discreet
distance from people who still feel aggrieved for
being unable to serve autocratic regimes. This is
the minimum one would expect of someone who claims
to have undiluted democracy high on his priority
Since life in exile is quite difficult and recalling
those good old days of unmitigated power makes it
even more painful, the former Prime Minister tries
to keep himself happy through various means in the
true spirit of Aeschylus’ words who said men
in exile “feed on dreams of hope”.
One of the things Nawaz Sharif seems to have done
is to have a coterie of self-seeking flatterers.
Even though all Pakistani newspapers are available
at the Palace and others are downloaded from the
Internet, only such news are read to the former
premier as are music to his ears. Only anti-Musharraf
news and columns are read to him, and that makes
him feel happy that the man who had overthrown him
is facing difficulties. He is pinning his hopes
on the downfall of his adversary.
For instance, during one of my visits to the Palace,
Nawaz Sharif was informed that Gen Musharraf had
addressed a public meeting in Okara. He curiously
asked how the meeting had gone. “Only 1,600
people were present there and they too had been
brought by the police and the patwaris,” said
a sycophant. The version was believed, with no one
in a mood to question the authenticity of the account.
On the contrary, the former Prime Minister was visibly
relieved that the graph of Gen Musharraf was “fast
Another leader told him that the situation was ripe
for launching a movement in Pakistan. According
to him, unrest was on the rise and the masses wanted
to get rid of the present government at the earliest.
The leader did not say what the party had been able
to do in the past five years despite launching several
‘movements’. And if the situation was
so “ripe” for the movement now, how
the downfall would come about. It was simply an
effort on his part to improve the feel-good factor
of his boss.
Sitting there one could only hope that Nawaz Sharif
would not be relying solely on such baseless information.
If he does, he will lose sight of the long term
without much of an effort. A political movement
would never succeed in the absence of Nawaz and
Benazir. One of them has to be in the country to
excite the masses. No one else can do that. Any
calculation to the contrary is nothing more than
daydreaming. Call it self-deception, if you please.
Coming to the question of the return of the Sharifs
before the completion of the ten-year banishment
accord, there is little doubt that the exiled family
does want to take a return flight at the earliest,
but understands that the dream may not come true
as long as Gen Pervez Musharraf is in power.
Their return is linked with the downfall of Gen
Musharraf, or some fresh agreement with him. As
things stand today, both possibilities are out of
question. As such, barring some unforeseen development,
the Sharifs will stay where they are, and are not
expected to get meaningful relief even in case of
a much talked about deal between the PPP and the
Nawaz Sharif acknowledges that the odds are against
his fast-track rehabilitation. What he firmly believes,
however, is that the Sharifs still have a role to
play, and he is willing to bide his time. (Courtesy