Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Flight 786 London to Jeddah via Islamabad

It was the most important journey of his life. Yet Nawaz Sharif kept sleeping most of the time on board PIA airplane flight PK-786, a symbolic Islamic number. Unsure of his fortune, the two-time prime minister of Pakistan kept his rendezvous with fate. In a laconic moment, flying over the vastness of central Asia, Sharif must have thought about those fateful moments during the fall of 1999 when a similar PIA aircraft carrying Gen Musharraf from Sri Lanka was not allowed to land in Pakistan, on his orders. Until that airplane ran dangerously low on fuel. Moments later, the all-powerful army took over. The Gen – of course landed safe – and Prime Minister Sharif was tied up, jailed and finally bundled into oblivion. To rot by the Red Sea, in Jeddah.

Not the one to take his fall from grace lying down, the billionaire Punjabi Nawaz Sharif, decided to wait his time out. With politics in his DNA, the Kashmiri-origin Nawaz who is often called the Titan/Lion of Punjab (He is a Punjabi, with both his dad and mom of Kashmiri ethnicity – a terrific combination in Pakistan, where three ingredients matter: Wealth, Faith and Kashmir) decided to strike back. Sharif, also called Mian Sahib by his followers, shifted base to a more political London from lavish Jeddah. Thames is a better idea than Red sea, as most of us would know. Aware that the Gen is considerably weakened by the sudden judicial activism in Pakistan, Main Sahib decided to return home – to Pakistan.

Mian Sahib is the quintessential Punjabi. He is fabulously wealthy. Sharif made a huge fortune during his days as a powerful finance minister under the dictator Zia. His family, immigrants from Shopian in Kashmir, made their millions in steel [Ittefaq Industries] before moving into sugar and textiles. Most of Pakistan's political elite has tended to come from the agricultural, rather than industrial sector, so Nawaz is an exception. The Biryani-loving Main sahib used to talk in chaste Punjabi and Urdu and was considered something of a conservative. His exile did two good things to him. He got an image make-over and improved upon his English. Sharif is now clad mostly in Seville row tweeds and has a new hair crop, thanks to a quick hair transplant. Not surprising from a man, who wanted an amendment in constitution of Pakistan during his second term as PM, to designate himself as the ‘Amir-ul-Momineen’ [Leader of the faithful], a politically loaded Islamic title.

So back to the flight. A planeful of world media in tow. Members of the British parliament sit by his side. His aide-camps. There is suddenly a heightened world attention. White House, we learn, is closely tracking the plane’s route. Could he scuttle their war on terror in Afghanistan? The Saudi King – Custodian of the two Holy Mosques and world’s oil boss – is watching developments with a strange eagerness from his Mecca palace, where golden threads are reported to fall off drapes when the servants dust them each morning. Meanwhile in Pakistan an all time high sympathy wave awaited Nawaz. It is a much leaner looking Sharif, with transplanted mane. Did he feel a sense of Déjà vu? Like time coming back to gnarl as distances shortened between him and his beloved homeland.

Flight 786 landed with fuel to spare. Mush had already gagged Nawaz’s supporters. Barricades were set all over. Violators threatened with dire consequences. Phones jammed. Military style. Tough, no-non-sense. Often enough in Pakistan’s history -- in the tussle between its military and civilians -- the former hold down the latter. Perhaps instructed to be rude, low level airport officials, the Pakistan media reported, misbehaved with Sharif -- the guy who is credited with detonating Pakistan’s first and only nuclear bomb. A once powerful man -- Mian Sahib -- could only utter: No body dares touch me. The feudal splendor was intact. The News, Pakistan, writes that the ex-PM broke down at one point and sobbed slowly when repeatedly misbehaved with. That is abominable. The rich and the respected should not cry. If and when Sharif – the mature politico – comes back to power (I have no doubt he will) he can always have that lowly, poor immigration officer slowly char-grilled, along with his superiors. No worries.

Sharif was immediately sent back. Such is the nature of Pakistan’s vindictive politics. Mush has once again, proved he is no different. Dispatching him back to the boring Red Sea palace – called Nawaz Palace – Musharraf displayed a complete lack of ethics and contempt of court – which allowed Sharif's homecoming -- and a vengeance that has become typical of the Gordian knot that is Pakistan.

Mush, the so-called savior, has -- alas -- become a silly suzerain that they all end up as.