Pakistan underestimates its former First Lady

As Nawaz Sharif’s government faces disintegration, Kulsoom Nawaz Sharif might yet pull a rabbit out of a hat.

WrittenBy:Umer Farooq
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She resisted and defied the military government of General Pervaiz Musharraf, and even when her husband was came to power in 2013 after being jailed towards the end of military government in Pakistan she didn’t press for a political office as has become customary in the country.

Three times First Lady of Pakistan, Kulsoom Nawaz Sharif is a typical house wife whose aversion to active politics is well known. But there are many occasions in recent family history when she had to take the plunge.

With success in the by-election, to the national assembly seat in Lahore vacated by her husband, she has been compelled once again to take politics more seriously. Party insiders say she might now represent Nawaz Sharif in the parliament, in the government and in the party.

In July 2000, she planned to embark on a long march on the Grand Trunk Road highway linking several towns in central Pakistan-in defiance of the military government’s orders against holding any political gathering. Her husband was in jail on flimsy charges of hijacking a passenger plane with the serving Army chief on board, and the military government had started a crackdown on political activities and had put thousands of activists behind bars (torturing political activists was a norm).

On that particular day, the military controlled government of Punjab province had put the family residence of Sharif in the environs of Lahore under siege, deploying thousands of armed policemen.

At first the police did not allow Kulsoom’s vehicle to exit as they blocked the road leading out of the family residence. However, the next day Kulsoom hoodwinked the police and went into the city. Nobody came out to welcome her. Party leaders were either in secret negotiations with the military or were too afraid to face the armed police.

Kulsoom’s intended destination was Peshawar, some eight hours drive from Lahore. “I am not concerned with whether anyone comes out to support me or not……I will do it alone if I have to—I will mobilize the masses against the military government,” a local newspapers quoted Kulsoom as saying.

Musharraf’s police didn’t allow Kulsoom’s vehicle to leave Lahore city. When the police stopped her car, she refused to step out. The administration had to bring in a crane to tow the vehicle to Sharif’s residence.

Kulsoom was labeled as the “Only man” in the Muslim League by the local media. Within months the Muslim League shifted loyalties to join hands with the military ruler Musharraf.

After Sharif regained power in Islamabad in 2013, she remained restricted to managing the household. However occasionally she made foray into politics, this all happened behind the scene.

Once in 2012 when a party loyalist Javed Hashmi, who accompanied Kulsoom in July 2000 on the Long March, announced his decision to part ways with the party is was she who persuaded him otherwise.

“Otherwise her political role has remained restricted to organize the women wing of the ruling party” said a party insider.

A senior political analyst, Sohail Warrich recently said on a talk show that Kulsoom’s political analysis and opinion is taken very seriously within the Sharif family, even though she has remained averse to active politics all these years. With a master’s in Urdu literature and a taste for poetry and literature she is considered a person more inclined towards the arts in a family more at ease with business and politics.

Sharif’s disqualification has once again compelled Kulsoom to assume an active role in politics and governance. Immediately after his disqualification, Sharif considered both Kulsoom and Shahbaz Sharif to replace him as prime minister of the country. “This idea has been shelved by the party” said a Muslim League insider.

Instead Sharif is now working on a plan to keep a pliant person as prime minister with both his wife and daughter, Maryam Nawaz Sharif representing him in the government and in the parliament. “In this model Shahid Khaqan Abasi serves him well” said a political commentator, “While Begum Kulsoom Nawaz Sharif’s dominating personality will represent the former prime minister in the parliament and in the government”.

Kulsoom was diagnosed with throat cancer a month ago and while her daughter was campaigning for her election in Lahore, she was undergoing treatment in London. Doctors say her disease is at an early stage and therefore curable.

She was born in Lahore to a Kashmiri middle class family and has remained away from public life till the time of her husband’s ouster in a military coup in October 1999. People have never seen her speaking in public or on the media all these years.

Party insiders say she was a source of strength for the family during the ordeal at the hands of the military government when Sharif and his sons were facing solitary confinement and torture respectively at the hands of military inside the Attock Fort, near Rawalpindi.

She married to Nawaz in April 1971. The couple has four children, Maryam, Asma, Hassan and Hussain, three of whom are facing corruption charges after the Supreme Court verdict that ousted Sharif.

There is a strong lobby within the party, which had been advocating that Kulsoom should have replaced Sharif as prime minister to keep the party intact and to ensure that the forces opposed to him don’t conspire against him in his absence.

Till now Sharif has not shown his cards, “He is keeping his cards close to he chest, and nobody knows whether he still wants to bring Kulsoom Nawaz Sharif into the government” said a party insider.

However there is a strongly likelihood that Kulsoom will be elevated to the office of president of the ruling party, a position she held from 1999-2002, when the Sharifs were in exile in Saudi Arabia.


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