Their Life in Exile
By Ashraf Mumtaz

Having covered 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 lost paradise.
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 recently.
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 passes by.
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 members.
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 is.
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 the dictatorship.
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 list.
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 declining”.
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 government.
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 Dawn)

Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.