Interview by Cyril Almeida
Lambasting the ongoing accountability process against himself and his family, former prime minister and PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif has said: “You can’t run a country if you have two or three parallel governments. This has to stop. There can only be one government: the constitutional one.”
In a wide-ranging and exclusive interview with Dawn ahead of his rally in Multan on Friday, a relaxed but adamant Sharif dismissed the recent defections from the PML-N, particularly in southern Punjab. “They didn’t leave the party, they were taken away. Who took them away?” Mr Sharif asked.
“If there really was a mahaz (front), then why did it last only two days? Who forced them to immediately join PTI?” Mr Sharif continued.
The rally in Multan was his first visit to southern Punjab’s largest city since his ouster in last July and the former prime minister was keen to steer the interview back to his politics of grievance rather than discuss regional political dynamics.
He denied that the Jhelum rally earlier in the week signalled a possible slowdown in momentum or weakening of public support for him. “Perhaps it was a smaller ground, but it was packed to capacity,” said Mr Sharif. “It is a very popular slogan,” he said of ‘mujhe kyun nikala?’ and, added with evident satisfaction, “There is a lot of appreciation, a lot of recognition for it.” The PML-N supreme leader also deflected questions about who will lead the party in the upcoming general elections campaign and whether his brother, Shahbaz Sharif, will be the prime ministerial candidate. Instead, he offered: “There is a lot of appreciation for Shahbaz Sharif. Look around this city and see how it’s totally transformed.”
The ex-premier was more animated and expansive while discussing his own record in office from 2013 to 2017, citing familiar road and electricity projects and higher economic growth. He repeatedly rejected criticism that his government failed to implement structural reforms, whether political, legal or economic, but finally said: “When there’s destabilisation from the first year, who can do reforms?” – a reference to the joint dharna of PTI and Tahirul Qadri in 2014.
Asked what he believes is the reason for his ouster from public office, Mr Sharif did not reply directly but steered the conversation towards foreign policy and national security. “We have isolated ourselves. Despite giving sacrifices, our narrative is not being accepted. Afghanistan’s narrative is being accepted, but ours is not. We must look into it.”
He continued: “Militant organisations are active. Call them non-state actors, should we allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai? Explain it to me. Why can’t we complete the trial?” – a reference to the Mumbai attacks-related trials which have stalled in a Rawalpindi anti-terrorism court.
“It’s absolutely unacceptable. This is exactly what we are struggling for. President Putin has said it. President Xi has said it,” Mr Sharif said. “We could have already been at seven per cent growth (in GDP), but we are not.”
He denied that a third ouster from the premiership represented a failed approach on his part and suggested he had no regrets nor would he have to do anything differently if he returned to public office. “The Constitution has to be supreme. There is no other way. Look, we put a dictator on trial; it had never been done before,” referring to retired Gen Pervez Musharraf.
Mr Sharif also rejected speculation that he would consider a deal if offered to him, another stint in exile for avoiding a jail sentence, for example. “Why would I do it now after 66 appearances (before a NAB court)? We don’t even get an exemption,” to visit his wife, Kulsum Nawaz, who is undergoing cancer treatment in the UK. “It’s not easy to stay away.”
“Look, we have no other choice,” Mr Sharif said before leaving to address the Multan rally. “These games have gone on too long. Something has to change.” But Mr Sharif’s sangfroid and confidence is not shared by others, including many in his party. After the completion of parliament’s term at the end of May, defections from the PML-N could accelerate, leaving him with a powerful electoral slogan, sympathetic voters, but few winning candidates and, ultimately, few seats in the next parliament.
(The writer is prominent journalist and associated with Karachi based reliable newspaper ‘Dawn’. The interview based article was first published in Dawn on May 12th, 2018)