A confident Maryam says nothing will stop the united opposition in their protests against the government. “Outside forces” should stay out of Pakistan politics.
In an exclusive interview to Khaleej Times, the vice-president of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, says her fight is about principles in politics. A confident Maryam says nothing will stop the united opposition in their protests against the government. “Outside forces” should stay out of Pakistan politics, she says.
“I could see the storm brewing,” said Maryam Nawaz Sharif, vice-president of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) when asked if she really expected people to come out in such large numbers at the first two rallies of the 11-party opposition alliance, Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM).
In an exclusive interview with Khaleej Times at her family estate on the edge of Lahore, Maryam was the very spirit of defiance as she explained how she had “been among the people” and learned to read their pulse, why she really expected the opposition protests to snowball and unseat the government, and just what kind of trial by fire has shaped her political career so far.
“When I came out of prison the first time, I travelled across the length and breadth of Punjab,” she said, speaking about the five huge rallies she held in important cities in the province. “I had never seen anything like it before, a sea of people surrounded me right from here to whichever place we were going, even if it took 10-12 hours in hot, humid weather.”
That was when her father, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, was in Kot Lakhpat Jail in Lahore and her growing popularity gripped the press, which promptly dubbed her the heir apparent to the party leadership. Soon enough though she was back in jail because, according to her, the government felt threatened by the way she was stoking the fire.
Yet before she was taken away she saw very clearly that people were already brimming with discontent because of “inflation, the government’s failures, and its incompetence.”
“The only thing they (government) are interested in is political victimisation, which they find very gratifying,” she said, but added that “people are much more politically aware now than before about their civil, legal and especially political rights; and about which kind of party should form the government.”
So when she came out the second time and reconnected with the people, although after a long silence, she saw that she was right about the building storm and her party decided to join the 11-party alliance with the one-point agenda of toppling the government.
But such alliances with similar aims have been formed on a number of occasions in the past, two against military dictators and one against an elected prime minister, and none of them succeeded in getting rid of a sitting government.
Yet she’s still “not just confident but certain” that this time would be different, especially after Nawaz Sharif, addressing the first rally in Gujranwala via video link from London on October 16, shocked the whole country by holding the top military leadership directly responsible for bringing Imran Khan to power, effectively opening a Pandora’s Box that can never be closed now.
That of course thrust her party to the forefront of the opposition alliance and with Nawaz Sharif in London and party President Shahbaz Sharif in jail, she suddenly found herself in the unenviable position of leading the party that had just picked a fight with the establishment. Big shoes to fill indeed for somebody with no experience of public office, not even contesting an election. But this didn’t seem to faze her at all.
“That changed the 72-year old history of this country,” she snapped. “Already nobody speaks in hushed voices anymore and people have started naming, blaming and shaming.”
And it only makes her more confident that “you didn’t have to wait long to see that Mian Nawaz Sharif was right.” Media houses were clearly influenced, she said, because the coverage was far from complete and an astonishing 2,200 FIRs were registered after the first rally alone.
After the second rally in Karachi on October 18, police barged into Maryam’s hotel room in the middle of the night and arrested her husband. The Sindh government later claimed that the police Inspector General (IG) was forcibly taken, rather “kidnapped,” and made to sign the arrest warrant, which he did after his excuses could not get him off the hook.
“If Nawaz Sharif was wrong, why did they react like this?” she simply asked.
Still, her own personal conviction notwithstanding, such bold claims made so publicly would surely have unnerved some members of the alliance. And since PML-N and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) are its two biggest and most important members, what if this made the latter part ways?
“They won’t go away,” she said without wasting a second. “It’s not just the people that are wiser now, political parties have also come a long way and they just cannot afford to be on the wrong side of the people anymore.”
And it’s not as if nobody expected the government to try and exploit long running PPP-PML-N differences to sabotage the PDM.
“I didn’t think for a moment that PPP was responsible for what happened in Karachi, even though it was designed to unfold that way,” she said.
Now all eyes are on Quetta in Balochistan where she’ll be the face of her party once again on October 25. Nawaz Sharif is expected to deliver another speech and she must brace herself to be in the eye of the storm once again after it.
All this is a long way from her quiet start few years ago when her father, then prime minister, asked her to help him with media management under his close guidance.
“It was then that I first saw from close quarters how a democratically elected government can be undermined, conspired against, and made to look bad,” she recalled.
She “started as a daughter” but assumed a much more politically active role after her father was disqualified by the Supreme Court in relation to the Panama Papers case. But her real transformation began in 2018 when she was arrested on corruption charges, a case she and her party still dispute as politically motivated and manipulated. This was the beginning of her trial by fire.
“Prisons are training schools,” she stressed. “And I got some rigorous training for which I would like to thank my oppressors because nothing could have prepared me for the long haul quite like it.”
Prison was indeed hard on her. She had to handle her father’s fall from grace, her mother’s long illness and death, and suffer her own sentence at the same time. But it didn’t break her.
“In fact, it had the exact opposite effect,” she said, clearly full of confidence and much stronger after her ordeal.
Now she mixes that same confidence with her ability to pull large crowds to attack the government over high inflation, rising unemployment and a failed foreign policy. And since she very strongly shares her father’s view that the Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) government stole the public mandate because it was “selected,” she has no qualms about letting the whole world know how she feels about who is really responsible for the whole mess.
There is, therefore, no turning back now. Not even if the government decides to take a step back and try to reconcile.
“No way, I will never back down!” she said, her eyes widening for more effect. “This is about principles and outside forces have no business to meddle in politics. It’s time to let politicians take care of politics.”
The only thing that is for certain, as far as she is concerned, is that the opposition will continue to pile pressure on the government, and its backers of course, till it collapses.
“The decisive march will come in January and it will hasten their doom,” she predicted.
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