Nawaz Sharif the liberal?

Published: March 5, 2016


PHOTO: AFP The writer is Executive Director News, Express News. 
He tweets @fahdhusain

If you missed out the action-packed week in Pakistan, you missed out on something very critical: our country’s unmistakable lurch in the right direction. The air is heavy with hope, anticipation and a whiff of fear.

Sharmeen won, Qadri hanged, Kamal returned. Sandwiched between these events was the reaction to them: joy, fury, confusion, speculation. But through this turbulence emerged a distinct pattern: the State is back in control.

Notice the discourse. In the last seven days Pakistan feverishly debated Sharmeen Chinoy’s Oscar and the issue of honour killings. Simultaneously, Pakistan dissected the decisive decision of the government to send Mumtaz Qadri to the gallows, and the ensuing reaction from the clerics. All this while Pakistan was delving deep into the pros and cons of the trend-setting Women’s Protection Bill legislated by the Punjab Assembly. And then Pakistan locked itself into a frantic discussion over the return of Mustafa Kamal and the shenanigans of the MQM. That’s enough news ammo to last a month.

What’s going on here?

Plenty, actually. Sharmeen’s second Oscar is a big deal, but what is even a bigger deal is the Prime Minister’s embrace of the cause espoused in the film: the curse of ‘honour’ killings. Sharmeen making Pakistan proud twice on the biggest international platform is a big deal, but what is even a bigger deal is the Prime Minister committing to legislation against the curse of ‘honour’ killings.

The Women’s Protection Bill is a big deal, but what is even a bigger deal is the government of the largest province pushing it through the assembly without being apologetic or defensive about it. According protection to victims of domestic abuse is a big deal, but what is even a bigger deal is the PML-N absorbing the blowback from its natural allies among the clergy.

Mumtaz Qadri’s hanging is a big deal, but what is even a bigger deal is the State’s refusal to cede any space to the clergy in the wake of the event. Sending a self-confessed murderer with a cult-following to the gallows is a big deal, but what is even a bigger deal is the State sending a clear message to the clergy that laws of the land will trump appeals to religiously-inspired emotions.

Fair to ask then: Is Nawaz Sharif in mortal danger of becoming a good man? Is he transforming into a Liberal?

The ‘L’ word itself is enough to send the clergy into a tailspin. The moment Sharif uttered the word during a speech in the context of modernising Pakistan, clerics pounced on him. In the days of yore, Sharif would have beaten a hasty retreat. This time he just ignored them like a minor annoyance.

As he did when the clerics howled over the Women Protection Bill; or when they screamed over the Sharmeen award; or when they worked themselves into a royal fury over Qadri’s hanging. Clerics clearly had a very bad week.

So what is Sharif thinking? What’s his game plan? Why is he stepping out of his political comfort zone to promote progressive and enlightened causes? How is he growing a spine to fight against terrorism and obscurantism?

The theory goes something like this: Nawaz Sharif knows he’s the master and commander of the political landscape as it exists today. With the PTI subdued by its own contradictions and the PPP having hacked itself from the waist downwards, Sharif faces no threat today or even in the near future. He is comfortable enough, secure enough and confident enough to take big decisions, and plan for the future — the political future that awaits him, his family and his party.

The landscape he surveys sprouts a rainbow-like ideological spectrum ranging from the extreme right (i.e. clerics) to the supposedly liberal, progressive parties (i.e. ANP, PPP, MQM). Here’s the thing though: both the so-called right and left have bled electoral strength and are limping across the landscape like weak shadows of their former selves. Sharif sees ceded space. Sharif likes what he sees. He believes he can occupy this space on the ideological spectrum vacated by these weakened parties. He has the strength, the time, and the powers of the executive to foray into this space like a conquering general.

He’s got his Punjab constituency under his belt. The centre-right, urban middle class is solid Sharif vote bank. Imran Khan raided this base but has so far failed to make a serious dent. In the rural areas, the Sharif juggernaut has invested three decades in clan-biradri networks to retain control of the vote. The bulk of the Punjab conservative voter remains in the Sharif camp.

While competing for this vote bank, Imran Khan had also appealed initially to the liberal, progressive, left-of-centre voter that traditionally gravitated to parties like the PPP, the MQM and the ANP. But somewhere during his political evolution, Khan lurched towards the extreme right lunatic fringe that considered the TTP as our misguided brothers who meant well. By doing so, he stepped on his own IED and blew up his prospects of championing progressive causes.

Now, enter Sharif. What better for him than to retain his conservative Punjabi vote bank and attract new voters by extending his appeal to those within the liberal and progressive spectrum? In the last week or so, the PML-N has received accolades from circles that were used to calling him a tool of the Establishment and hostage to right-wing reactionaries.

Smart politics is on display.

Diffident voters may yet stay skeptical, but they will not miss the rebranding of Nawaz Sharif that is underway: A solidly centrist, certifiably conservative, electorally strong leader gradually being re-painted as modern enough, competent enough, experienced enough, liberal enough, enlightened and broad minded enough to appeal to the broadest possible vote bank in the country.

The PML-N insiders calculate that if this re-branding of their leader is done right, his competitors will look like pygmies compared to his stature and appeal. Perhaps Sharif has reached a stage in his life when he’s actually thinking beyond elections and focusing more on his legacy. Can he beat the system to elicit genuine change through liberal and progressive politics?


In many ways, Sharif is the system. He then only needs to change himself. Did we witness a glimmer of this change in the last seven days?

Published in The Express Tribune, March 6th, 2016.

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Reader Comments (21)

  • Faraz
    Mar 5, 2016 - 11:41PM

    Too good very correctRecommend

  • Rana Umair
    Mar 6, 2016 - 12:02AM

    Excellent article and agree on every word you wrote!! Nawaz sharif is silently becomihg something so big that it’ll be difficult for even our mullahs to tackle.

    One thing is for sure: his inspiration comes from preaident erdogan! Recommend

  • MA
    Mar 6, 2016 - 12:16AM

    few good deeds are not enough to redeem the lifetime of wickedness.Recommend

  • Aysha Aziz
    Mar 6, 2016 - 12:20AM

    You are really a master piece,are’nt you.When Nawaz was ousted the last time he was planning on becoming “Ameer ul Momineen”,imposing shariah laws in the country.But that was no to be,Musharaf over threw his government and he was behind the bars.How many people took to the streets?how many clerics prosteted for his release?
    Who came to the rescue? America,Bill Clinton.What makes it worst is that they have learnt that they have lost whatever support base they had.Their popularity graff went down after 2008,2013 elections were rigged to give them a clear majority which they otherwise could never get.NA-122 and NA-145 elections are testaments to their unpopularity but they can’t affoard to lose elections,they have to remain in power.What other choice they have but to have America at its back.Besides they have Metros and now the Orange train and billions in advertisment for the media to create the illusion that they have “delivered”.The nation for the next 5 years will learn through talk shows about themselves is that they actually want mega infrastructure projects and they don’t really care about mundane issues like health,education,electricity,inflation etc.Recommend

  • fair
    Mar 6, 2016 - 12:53AM

    Writer always keeps out of the way thinking. Things are not like that the author always thinks. There is no ideological vote bank exist in c class democracy like pakistan. People even voted pmlq though once sharif were there and once not. It is actually the perceived power game. Toward whick it would be gravitated that will be honoured with votes either man is zardari., nawaz, pervaz or imranRecommend

  • kamran
    Mar 6, 2016 - 12:57AM

    Fahad Congrats on getting ” Bajawar Brush” to shine ” The sharif”! Recommend

  • Fuad
    Mar 6, 2016 - 1:01AM

    It was a NOON week no doubt. Even the die hard liberal PTI vote bank buckled.Recommend

  • Dr Akmal
    Mar 6, 2016 - 3:14AM

    Very good analysis. Pretty impressive.Recommend

  • Ahmed Ali khan
    Mar 6, 2016 - 3:28AM

    It seems like a PML-N paid article. Recommend

  • Tanveer Khan
    Mar 6, 2016 - 5:47AM

    I have my serious doubts if he is actually in the driving seat. This really looks like scripted somewhere else. If it was for PMLN, they would sit on Qadri for another decade denying all pleas of justice to the cause of the slain governor.

    Mustafa Kamal has been in the making for quite sometime. Obviously a natural ally of PMLN in urban Sindh.

    What I can’t wrap my mind around is the women protection bill. What has changed in Punjab that has made see this bill the light of day let alone becoming actual law of the land?

    A real litmus test would be disbanding an illegal CII. That entity was suppose to work for 6years only. But it is still around. Recommend

  • Anon
    Mar 6, 2016 - 8:53AM

    Sharif is an opportunist above all else. One week of ‘liberalism’ isn’t going to change who this man is at his core – power-hungry, ill-informed and unfit to rule. Recommend

  • Fuad
    Mar 6, 2016 - 12:16PM

    @Ahmed Ali Khan, you couldn’t be a regular Fahd column reader, otherwise you would not have made this statement.Recommend

  • Ali S
    Mar 6, 2016 - 12:26PM

    The only Sharif with a spine here wears khaki and boots. Nawaz simply bucks his trend, we’re fortunate now that Nawaz happens to be bucking the right trend – less than two decades ago, the same Nawaz wanted to declare himself “Amir ul Momineen”. Old habits die hard.

    I’ll give Nawaz’s credit, though, for making an excellent choice of COAS and having the maturity not to turn this into a zero-sum civ-mil mess.Recommend

  • Imran Khakwani
    Mar 6, 2016 - 4:12PM

    Mr Fahd, normally write in superlative form. His opinions are way too optimistic or pessimistic. Now, his claim that Mr Nawaz is becoming Everest and rest of the leaders will become pygmies is a superlative opinion. When i was crawling on floor he was CM Punjab and now my son is crawling on floor he is PM and his brother is CM. Even after 30 years in power if he is still trying to be leader then i am sure Mr Fahd prophecy will take another decade to take the shape.
    God Bless Pakistan and God Bless opinions of Mr Fahd.Recommend

  • Haqster
    Mar 6, 2016 - 8:16PM

    Easy to pass the bill harder to enact into meaningful changeRecommend

  • Old Ravian
    Mar 7, 2016 - 9:30AM

    Nawaz Sharif is not liberal but more close to an average politician who thinks about his nation than others. The so called liberals are basically hypocrites. Bhutto senior gave us an Islamic constitution and ensured islamisation of the country. Later when the liberal coalition of PPP-MQM-ANP were in power, the only thing we saw was corruption and chaos, they were least interested in developing or restoring moderate fabric of the society. So the bottom line is that there are no liberals in Pakistan as for as politics is concerned. Recommend

  • S.R.H. Hashmi
    Mar 7, 2016 - 10:01AM

    You rightly claim that a campaign is underway to rebrand and present Nawaz Sharif, a solidly centrist, certifiably conservative, electorally strong leader as a modern enough, competent enough, experienced enough, liberal enough, enlightened and broad minded enough to appeal to the broadest possible vote bank in the country.

    And this despite the fact that his basic personality traits: corruption, nepotism, arrogance, vindictiveness, dislike for parliamentary practices and rampant mis-governance remain unchanged.

    And he looks extremely confident and happy now, and not entirely without justification. Traditionally the most powerful sector in Pakistan which only recently blamed him of mis-governance, and which in the past, gave him lot of pain, even driving him out of office twice, now having its top boss feeling privileged to drive him around at a project launch ceremony, is not a development that could stop short of going to his head.

    No wonder he buried the long-overdue population and housing census, for some years at least, as also the matter of creation of Bahawalpur and South Punjab provinces for which Punjab Assembly had passed the resolutions during its previous tenure, and which now had to be taken up by the Federal Government.

    And just one shout from Nawaz Sharif forced the corruption busters with new-found courage to tamely back-track to their earlier position of not touching the powerful elements, and remaining contented with deriving all their thrills, fun, excitement and adventure by continuing to hound the weak and vulnerable one already in their grip: Dr. Asim Hussain, and perhaps others like him.


  • Talal Khan
    Mar 7, 2016 - 10:09AM

    Good insight. Fahad is not debating if Nawaz is pious or evil, good or bad but has hit the very strings of nation in a timely fashion..Recommend

  • Parvez
    Mar 7, 2016 - 10:39AM

    Third attempt at a comment : Hope you are right.Recommend

  • Barooq
    Mar 7, 2016 - 12:12PM

    My comment never goes through :@
    anyway here it goes
    it isnt Just political space, it isnt just a game. As Fahd clutches at straws to explain what he didnt see coming, WE did. To say sharif gets more political capital while retaining the right wing base by hanging qadri is simply wrong analysis. The right will abandon Sharif in much greater numbers than the left will embrace him. This is statesmanship at expense of politics if only you could see. Nawaz sharif,if he wins, wont win on left changing allegiance, or right standing with him but because common folk will vote for electricity and development irrespective of ideology. And the left? Their mantra is anyone but the sharifs and they will keep loving the little bhutto hoping he grows up while voting IK despite “ideology”.
    Nawaz Sharif is doing what needs to be done: period.Recommend

  • Aysha Aziz
    Mar 7, 2016 - 4:11PM

    Awaiting your article on Nawaz Sharif’s Million Tree project,it is definitely more note worthy than the 300 million trees that have been planted by KPK government under the Billion Tree Tsunami.Recommend

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