Note: I conducted the following interview with Pakistan's deposed Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif in April 2005. He was then based in Jeddah, the Red Sea port city of Saudi Arabia. This interview first appeared in three parts in M.J. Akbar’s multi-edition The Asian Age newspaper. — Siraj Wahab, Jeddah, Feb. 12, 2007
JEDDAH, April 16, 2005 — It has been nearly five years since Nawaz Sharif flew from Pakistan to exile in Saudi Arabia. Mystery shrouds him. Where is he living? What is he doing with his life? Is he planning a comeback? From his base at the Red Sea port city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Sharif makes frequent visits to the Kingdom’s various cities where his supporters sometimes catch a glimpse of him, but not much more. Hardly a day passes without some function or another for the thousands of Pakistanis living in Jeddah — but without Sharif. The Pakistani government’s representatives to Saudi Arabia do not officially acknowledge him. But Sharif spends most of his time at his headquarters in Soroor Palace, off Madinah Road in the very heart of Jeddah. There, surrounded by high walls and vast gardens, he lives a comfortable life in what was once the residence of King Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s third ruler. Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz has instructed that the palace is to be at Sharif’s disposal for as long as he is there.
Sharif is indeed in exile, but he is by no means a prisoner. He receives guests daily. Invited to dinner one night last week, I provided the exact spelling of my name to one of his close aides and appeared at the palace’s secure entrance at 7 pm with my official identification. After confirming my identity, I passed through the gate. To my right was the guest house Shahbaz Sharif had used before he moved to London. A little further along was the palace, a rare triumph of Arabian architectural style amidst Jeddah’s concrete austerity.
For a first-time visitor, Soroor Palace is overwhelming. Immediately beyond the entrance is a huge hall, furnished with large sofas and hung with enormous twinkling chandeliers. The marble floors are partially covered with oriental rugs. In one corner hangs a framed photo of Sharif and Crown Prince Abdullah, taken in happier times.
The hall where Sharif receives guests was full of people. Some were Sharif’s assistants and domestic staff, others were well-wishers or party workers. Sharif, in a fresh white Pakistani suit, rose from his place to welcome every new visitor. His greeting was warm and his smile genuine, even for those he had not met before. Guests were shown to their seats before Sharif returned to his. Even before Sharif sat down, a secretary was whispering in his ear. Another aide handed him a telephone. A servant went round the room several times pouring Arabic coffee for the guests as Sharif continued with business. Finally, he turned to his son, Hussain, seated to his right, and quietly made a final comment. Then he called for an aide to start reading the political columns. First, the aide listed the available selections and made notes of important news items. Then Sharif made his choices. The aide had already marked important paragraphs in each piece, and he now read them aloud.
Comments by Pakistani Opposition parties were of course highlighted. One particular story caught Sharif’s attention — about North Korea’s nuclear armament. The story said the North Koreans were coming up with a new kind of missile that would deactivate incoming enemy missiles. Sharif wondered how effective even Patriot missiles are, recalling how many Patriots were supplied in 1990 to the Gulf War allies of the United States and how many of those failed to work. He wondered whether the world was being made any safer by these missile races. Then the aide recited a famous couplet by Pakistan’s national poet, Iqbal, quoted in one of the columns. Everybody burst into "wah, wahs," but Sharif sat still and did not join the chorus. Once the hall quieted, the reading of the columns continued.
Far from being out of touch with Pakistani politics, Sharif these days has more time than ever to read about it, and also gets first-hand accounts of the situation at home from visitors to Saudi Arabia. His phone never stopped ringing that evening, although he was selective in what calls he took. It is obvious that Sharif is still popular and widely admired. But the personal rivalry with Pervez Musharraf will keep him out of Pakistan for the time being. Despite that, as demonstrated in the last elections, Sharif’s vote base has remained steady.
Once the review of current affairs was completed, the conversation turned to more distant history. Sharif has an enviable knowledge of the history of the subcontinent. He remembers in detail the backgrounds of many rajas and Mughal rulers. In response to comments from some of the guests about the burial places of various emperors, Sharif rattled off a list of the Mughal emperors, where they were born and buried and a few titbits about each of them.
The next day, we met in his study where he spoke at length about issues facing Pakistan, his time in jail and exile, his recent meeting with Benazir Bhutto, Kargil, Indo-Pak ties and "the turncoats who now surround Musharraf."
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: You have been away from Pakistan for a long time. In your absence how do you view the political situation in the country?
A: Yes, I have been away for more than four years and although they say out of sight, out of mind, things have gone in our favour. The opposition to Pervez Musharraf is now stronger than ever before, although he tries his best to restrain our party. Our members are implicated in all kinds of false cases. Musharraf has used his agencies extensively for this purpose. Our people showed great courage when they fought the elections of 2002. We got quite a large number of votes. Given the circumstances, my expectations were much lower than what we actually achieved. Musharraf barred many of our leaders from contesting the elections. He even pressurised the election commission not to accept the papers of many of our candidates. Overnight, he promulgated an ordinance which prevented Benazir Bhutto from contesting the elections. Her nomination was rejected. Once her papers were rejected, I also withdrew my papers in protest to express my concern for national solidarity. And then he didn’t allow me, he didn’t allow Benazir Bhutto, he didn’t allow Shahbaz Sharif nor my wife to come to Pakistan to campaign during the elections. Despite our absence, our party did well in the elections, and ever since our position has become stronger and stronger.
Q: How long will the Musharraf government last?
A: I am not a fortune-teller and therefore I can’t really make any predictions. It is a question that you should be asking a jyotishi who might be able to tell you how long his government is going to last. (Laughs) But let me tell you, his position is not very sound now and he has problems all over. For some of these problems he himself is responsible because he believes in taking cudgels with everybody. His motto is to solve all problems through force. He perhaps doesn’t believe in sitting across the table with people and sorting matters out. You see, when he went to India (Agra), he made a mess of himself which prompted Mr Vajpayee to comment: "Woh bahot hi badqismat mezbaan hoga jiska mehmaan Musharraf hoga (The most unlucky host is the one whose guest is Musharraf)." So your question was...
Q: How long will...
A: ...the Musharraf government last? Yes, so I don’t know, but I think things around him are very bad today, and the sooner he realises, the better for him and also for the country. I now see disturbances all over. There is a lot of dissatisfaction among the people of Pakistan. Look at Balochistan. Look at the Northern Areas. Look at the tribal belt in the Frontier Province, Waziristan and other places. Look at what is happening in Sindh and Punjab. Look at the unprecedented rise in unemployment, poverty and inflation. There is a complete breakdown of law and order. The writ of the government is becoming weaker by the day. And his coalition of the very divergent vested interests is falling apart. People are vociferously and openly talking about their rights and civil liberties. And then of course what we have recently learned about certain people’s demands. These demands were really unheard of in the past. Only dictatorship in the country or military rule would give rise to these kinds of sentiments. Under a democratic set-up or under a political government, this would never happen. In a democratic set-up, whenever such feelings are expressed they would be handled politically. We lost East Pakistan because we had dictatorship in Pakistan. Had there been democracy at that time we wouldn’t have lost it. It was people like Yahya Khan who mishandled the situation. It was people like Yahya Khan who never accepted the mandate of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was the legitimate elected leader of the country — both East Pakistan and West Pakistan. It should have been left to him to decide. He had the mandate to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Yahya Khan never accepted that, and then he tried to solve the matter by force, and look what happened. Pakistan was dismembered. Again if we try to solve matters by similar means, we will have more and more problems on our hands.
Q: What is the deal with Benazir Bhutto?
A: There is no deal between me and Benazir Bhutto. Of course, we both are part of the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy (ARD). We are jointly struggling for the restoration of genuine democracy in Pakistan. We have regular consultations on many issues. Benazir Saheba was very kind to visit us here in Jeddah recently and we had very good discussions. We discussed for the first time — face-to-face — issues confronting Pakistan and their possible solutions. We agreed on a code of conduct to be followed by us to ensure a smooth and continued democracy in Pakistan. We agreed on a code of conduct based on mutual respect and tolerance, strengthening of national democratic institutions, restoration of the 1973 Constitution, establishing an independent judiciary, providing good governance to the people, respecting the freedom of the media and human rights, particularly rights of women and minorities, safeguarding Pakistan’s sovereignty and holding free and fair elections under an independent election commission. The specifics about the agreed code of conduct are being worked out by a working group which will make them public in the near future.
Q: Supposing there were elections tomorrow, would your party and Benazir’s join hands to defeat Musharraf?
A: The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) have been, and are, long-time political rivals. Whenever they have been held, elections have been mainly between these two parties and sometimes they win and sometimes we win. The same position continues up to now and if free and fair elections were held in Pakistan, then the two parties would again be contesting the elections against each other. And then of course the Pakistani people would continue to put their confidence in the same manner as they have done in the past. So whichever side won the elections, they would respect each other’s mandate. For example, if the PPP won the elections, we would respect their mandate; if we won, we would expect them to respect ours. We would not try to bring down any government: this is one of the things that the code of conduct will mention, and I think it is a very positive development, because in the past, examples can be quoted where each other’s mandate was not respected by the other party. We have agreed that the party in power will also respect the party in Opposition — and the Opposition will respect the party in power.
Q: What are your chances of going back to Pakistan? Musharraf recently said that you will not be allowed back until 2007.
A: Every now and then Musharraf finds it necessary to issue such statements to keep the shaky King’s Party intact. If he doesn’t make these statements, it will fall apart like a house of cards. I belong to the people of Pakistan. Nobody can deny me the right to return to my country. And the challenges that Pakistan faces today require the return of the genuine national leadership to play its role. Only genuine representative leadership can steer the country out of the present morass. The sooner it happens, the better. However, if Musharraf tries to repeat the 2002 rigging drama, then the ARD constituents will decide about a future course of action. It will be difficult for Musharraf to establish the legitimacy of the next general elections by denying the national leadership full participation in the electoral process. So such statements are basically a sign of nervousness on the part of Musharraf and his party.
Q: How long will America tolerate Musharraf?
A: I don’t know. But I am very concerned. America must support the Pakistani nation and not one single individual. America must support the democratic process in Pakistan. America must ensure that Pakistan comes back to its democratic path. It should not support somebody who has derailed the democratic process in the country, somebody who has abrogated the Constitution of Pakistan, somebody who has forcibly and at gun point dismissed Parliament. I think America must see to it that it does not support any such person or any such man ... because supporting one such man alienates the rest of the nation. I as a leader of a political party feel very disturbed about this. When President Clinton visited Pakistan he made sure that he reprimanded the man in charge — of course Musharraf. He expressed his displeasure and refused to be photographed with him. That was the policy that should have been carried forward by the new American administration. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Also, I often wonder while democracy is being supported in Afghanistan and Iraq, why it is being denied in Pakistan. There can be no two opinions that it is not the people of Pakistan but the men in uniform who are calling the shots. Will the American people ever accept this kind of "uniformed democracy"?
Q: What are Benazir Bhutto’s contacts with America? Is she equally disturbed about the American support for one man?
A: I think she is also trying to convey the same thing to the Americans.
Q: Are you in touch with India? And what difference do you see between Vajpayee-Advani and Manmohan-Sonia? Who would you prefer to deal with?
A: I should not be making any comparisons between the Indian leadership. I don’t want to make any distinctions between one and the other. I respect every democratically-elected Indian leader. I had very good rapport with whoever was in power in Delhi. Even if I didn’t know the man, we developed understanding and a rapport. I started off with Mr Chandra Shekhar on the other side. I think at that time he was the caretaker Prime Minister and I found him to be a good man. Then came Mr Narasimha Rao with whom I also built a good relationship. I had no problems in dealing with him. Then came Mr I.K. Gujral who was a wonderful man and still is. We are still in touch with each other. He is a very well-meaning person and a man with a great many good qualities; I had a very good relationship with him. Then came Mr Vajpayee and I had a wonderful relationship with him too; I felt very comfortable dealing with him, and he was very kind to visit Pakistan. What he said about Pakistan during his visit to Lahore was a matter of great pride for me. I haven’t actually dealt with Mr Manmohan Singh although I have heard a great deal about him. He seems to be doing well as Prime Minister of India. I had the opportunity of meeting Mrs Sonia Gandhi when Mr Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated and I went to Delhi to attend his funeral. I called on Mrs Sonia Gandhi to offer my condolences. I was then the Prime Minister of Pakistan, the early days of my first tenure. I was very impressed by her courage and fortitude and how bravely she faced the crisis. The beauty of India is that it has genuine democracy. Whoever comes up through that process, we respect him or her and the party, whether it is the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Congress party or anybody else. India has moved forward on the path of democracy without any hindrance or interruption. In the year 2000 there was a debate on BBC television in which almost all the former Prime Ministers of India participated, including Mr V.P. Singh, Mr Chandra Shekhar, Mr Narasimha Rao; perhaps Mrs Sonia Gandhi was also there as the wife of a former Prime Minister. The subject of the debate was what India has achieved in its 50 years of independence. The unanimous view was that the biggest achievement in the last 50 years was that the country has upheld the sanctity of the ballot box ... democracy... They didn’t say economic development, they didn’t say nuclear power, they said democracy, and I think they were absolutely right. I wish we in Pakistan could also say that. As to your question about whom we would ideally prefer to deal with, it is not for us to make choices. Of course, we have to deal with whoever is chosen by the people of India. Similarly, the Indian leadership should make it incumbent upon itself to talk to only those who are democratically chosen by the people of our country because real peace will only come about when democratic leadership talks to each other on both sides.
Q: Do you think democracy will ever take root in Pakistan?
A: It will. It has to. Otherwise the country will not move forward.
Q: Have Musharraf’s men approached you with the offer of a deal? And if they do, what will be your response?
A: They came before the elections of 2002. That was a serious move from Musharraf, and he wanted some sort of a settlement with me. They came with a proposal but I didn’t accept that; I refused even to entertain that proposal.
Q: What was the proposal?
A: The proposal was that I should support the PML faction which was created by Musharraf and headed at the time by Mian Azhar. Musharraf said Nawaz Sharif should merge his party with this faction so that it became one party, and Nawaz Sharif should step down as the president of his party. He should nominate somebody whom Musharraf recommended and this party should then contest the elections as the King’s Party. Musharraf felt that if Nawaz Sharif stepped aside and lent his full support to this party, the party would do well in the polls. After that, whoever headed the party was to be decided by Musharraf. This proposal was brought to me by a very dear friend of the family, a very elderly person. He was asked directly by Musharraf himself to come to Jeddah to meet and discuss the proposal with me. Musharraf said this deal could only work if Nawaz Sharif agrees officially to announce his support for this proposal. Meaning thereby that we should forget about the Pakistan Muslim League and turn our party into the Musharraf League. In return, Musharraf said he would allow both Shahbaz Sharif and Nawaz Sharif to come back to Pakistan. Shahbaz Sharif could have come back just after the elections of 2002, and after a short period, Nawaz Sharif could also return to Pakistan. I rejected the proposal outright. There are three things that I will never compromise on. I will never surrender.
Q: What are those three things?
A: One, the Constitution of Pakistan should return to its original form. It must be restored as it stood on the day of the military takeover, October 12, 1999. Short of this, nothing is acceptable. Two, immediate free and fair elections under a neutral set-up. Three, these elections should be conducted by an independent and effective election commission whose head should be appointed in consultation with the Opposition.
Q: Was your coming to Saudi Arabia part of a deal with Musharraf?
A: I have no knowledge of any deal between the government of Pakistan and the Saudi government. I have no knowledge of this at all. There is no deal between us and Musharraf whatsoever. I want to make this very clear.
Q: So your coming to Saudi Arabia was not your decision?
A: Actually it was Crown Prince Abdullah who took the initiative and got me out of Pakistan. And I am very grateful to him. When I was the Prime Minister of Pakistan, he said it in a very affectionate manner, "I am like your real brother and you are like my real brother." The way in which he took the initiative was a clear manifestation of what he said. He thought of me when I was in trouble. It was good of him to remember me during difficult times.
Q: Will there ever be a commission to look into what happened during the Kargil affair? And will the guilty ever be punished?
A: A commission will be set up when the circumstances allow, no matter if I am there or somebody else is. Setting up a commission is a must. It will look into how and why the Kargil episode took place and who the people were who were responsible for it. It is not only my demand; it is a public demand. The media has talked about it. It has also been demanded by various leaders of the political parties in Pakistan. You can’t evade it for too long. Under Musharraf of course there is no question of any Kargil commission being set up. But once Musharraf is off the scene, a commission will be set up. The people of Pakistan have the right to know the truth. If India can have two commissions of inquiry into Kargil, why can’t we have one?
Q: Can there be lasting peace between India and Pakistan?
A: A genuine effort was going on to mend fences with India, and a peace process had been initiated by both sides. It was sincerely backed by Prime Ministers on both sides. Mr Vajpayee said during one of his meetings at Lahore, "Nawaz Sharif Saheb, let us declare this year 1999 as a year of resolution of all disputes between Pakistan and India, including Kashmir." We were trying to find an honourable solution to the Kashmir dispute. There can’t be a solution which is acceptable to either Pakistan or India alone. It can only happen if it is agreed upon by all three parties, Pakistan, India and the Kashmiris. We were moving forward and there was also some back channel diplomacy. Meetings were taking place in Pakistan, India and Dubai. Progress was being made. Had the momentum continued, the efforts would have made some headway. Unfortunately, the Kargil episode took place and Mr Vajpayee said he was let down by Pakistan. I think he was right to say so. He also said that he was stabbed in the back. Not only he was stabbed in the back, I too was stabbed in the back. I am not a man who will betray somebody or stab him in the back. That is not my way. But I have a reservation about one thing. Although I have great regard for Mr Vajpayee, he shouldn’t have opened any channel of communication with a man who was responsible for subverting and derailing the historic Lahore peace process. Remember what Mr Vajpayee said, "Woh bahot hi badqismat mezbaan hoga jiska mehmaan Musharraf hoga." (Laughs) Maybe he realised that much later.
Q: Exile is a painful thing, but does it also teach you important lessons?
A: Of course, it is painful... These are the moments of soul-searching and also reflection. One should think about mistakes that one may have made in the past. We are all human beings and human beings do make mistakes. But in these five years I have done a lot of soul-searching — and not soul-searching confined only to politics. One looks at the whole spectrum of global, regional and national issues with fresh perspectives, thoughts and ideas. And this is what I have been doing. This period in exile has also provided a broader perspective. It has given me an opportunity to analyse the successes and failures of other countries and to draw inferences for Pakistan’s future.
Q: How do you feel when so many of your associates have switched sides?
A: All those who were responsible for the downfall of my government are today sticking with Musharraf. I think one day they will also be responsible for his downfall. (Laughs) I am happy that they have gone away because they were all opportunists. But then, you see, if you compare the total number of these people with the number of our supporters, it is insignificant and negligible. We will not accept these turncoats back in our party. Some of the turncoats try to call me but I don’t encourage them. I hate hypocrisy. They say in politics there are no permanent enemies, only permanent interests. For me there are no permanent interests but permanent principles. When Musharraf seized power, he talked about the seven-point agenda and talked about good governance. Look at the good governance that he is now employing in Pakistan. This government has the largest Cabinet in Pakistan and most of them are the most corrupt elements, and the majority of them are those people who are turncoats — cases have been filed against many of them. Let me tell you that many of the cases filed against them are by NAB (National Accountability Bureau) — a bureau created by Musharraf himself which itself has become a centre of corruption. Where is his promised provincial harmony and the other tall claims? They have all evaporated into thin air. One can say without any fear of contradiction that this is the worst government in Pakistan. The media is full of stories about the land grabbing and real estate dealings by Musharraf’s coterie of generals.