New Delhi: Hair tied in a bun, carrying a Bottega Veneta green-coloured bag, Maryam Nawaz Sharif was seen shopping at the Abu Dhabi airport on Friday afternoon.
Just hours before that, she was seen entering the airport with her father, former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif, wearing what looked like Gucci sandals. Her fashion statement was on point, just like how it always has been. But there was something else that caught the world’s eye.
For someone who was just hours away from being thrown into prison for eight long years, Maryam appeared more composed than she ever looked.
Till they reached Lahore later in the night on Friday, she was her father’s shadow. While her father chose to restrict his smiles, Maryam stood smiling in front of journalists, showing no regret at leaving the United Kingdom for her homeland, where she would eventually be jailed.
People, within and outside Pakistan, took to social media to “commend” her calmness in what was otherwise a nerve-wracking situation. She was playing the biggest political gamble by embracing incarceration at such a crucial time during the polls, but many have noted that while the jail term for corruption could harm PML(N) temporarily, it was bound to do wonders for her image: as someone who stood by her father in times of trouble and sacrificed it all to save democracy.
Maryam’s rise in the political sphere in Pakistan is what contemporary stories are made of. Like many women, she married young, and had three children. As is with politics around the world, age just seems to be a number in Pakistan.
Inching close to 40 and with her children growing up, Maryam’s father took her under the wing officially in 2012. Until then, she was actively involved in her family’s philanthropic organisation, Sharif Trust, while also pursuing her PhD at Cambridge University.
Known as a voracious reader fluent in four languages, she was seen as an advocate of women’s rights and education.
But, with two of his sons away, charting their own business profiles, Nawaz decided to turn to his daughter to fill the vacuum and be his heir apparent.
Six years have gone by since she first appeared ‘officially’ for her father and Maryam is still credited with bringing PML(N) closer to the 21st century, putting forth a liberal narrative, breaking away from the traditional political ways and connecting more with the youth.
‘Waqt Ki Awaz, Maryam Nawaz’ (Voice of the times, Maryam Nawaz). This is what Maryam used to hear when she stepped onto the stage and she has apparently earned it. Journalist and activist Gul Bukhari says that Maryam played a pivotal role in ensuring that the Sharifs became more “public”.
“Their life was strictly private and there was barely anything for public consumption. Look at them now. In making her family’s life more open to the people, they seemed to have developed a stronger bond with the masses,” Bukhari said.
Early on Friday, before Maryam and her father left, there was a string of pictures from London that did the rounds on social media.
One of them was tweeted by Maryam herself where she is seen embracing her children, saying “kids will be kids…goodbyes are hard, even for grownups.” There was another picture, where Nawaz was touching his comatose wife Kulsoom’s head with an emotional Maryam standing behind him. Maryam didn’t share this picture, but there is very little doubt that the picture was made public with her approval.
And the move seemed to have worked. Both the pictures drew instant reactions from people. From many calling Nawaz the “lion” and the one with the “lion heart”, there were many others who said “nobody would forget the images.” Over the years, Maryam successfully used social media to show that her family was not just about politics.
Since Nawaz is still not on social media, especially Twitter, Maryam is said to be the one who bridges the gap. She is known to personally tell her father of the tweets that have been marked to him or the party in general, the talk of the day. She ensures that everything on social media discourse makes its way into the brief with her father.
And indeed, one look at Maryam’s timeline reveals how she tracks social media religiously. Of the 60,000 tweets that she has on her feed, most are retweets. Additionally, in comparison to many leaders in Pakistan, including Imran Khan and Bilawal Bhutto, she follows a lot of people (more than 7,000) and there is significant communication.
Beyond social media too, she is considered a people’s person. Pakistan has had several assassinations (and attempts) and bombings during elections rallies (and otherwise) over the years. In such times, Maryam has been seen reaching out to the crowd. Getting out of her car and leaving her cavalcade behind to shake someone’s hand seemed to be normal behaviour for her, an act which came more to the forefront when she was campaigning for her mother Kulsoom during the by-elections in NA-120. Nawaz had been disqualified by the Supreme Court by then.
While the ‘Waqt Ki Awaz’ may have pocketed support from within the party and beyond, she has also been criticised by many. Former interior minister Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan had famously said that Maryam’s “razor-sharp tongue” was pushing PML(N) to a dead-end. Her aggressive narrative against the military and her support for a civilian establishment has also not hit the right note.
When the anti-corruption court indicted the Sharifs for corruption last year, she said that the trial was a repeat of 1999, hinting at military intervention in their conviction. Critics like former parliamentarian Saman Jaffri had said that women like Benazir Bhutto and Maryam came from influential families and hence “did not represent change”.
Opposition leaders have slammed her too, with PTI leader Imran Khan questioning the special treatment “the criminal” was given during the Panama Papers trial. True to her fiery character, Maryam lashed out at Imran on various accounts.
Archives are full of analysts talking about a possible break in PML(N) because of Maryam. Her cousin, Hamza, PM candidate Shahbaz Sharif’s son, was often considered to be the heir apparent. For someone who had idolised his uncle for so long and would speak of Nawaz more than his own father, Hamza was stumped when Maryam became active suddenly and started to hit a chord with the party.
Addressing Hamza, Maryam has boomed “mera bhai” many times at public gatherings, but many seem to be unsure how much of that is reciprocated by her cousin. That said, everyone in the Sharif family knows the vote will always be for Nawaz and a split would be political death. And while there seems to be a popular narrative that Maryam influences her father’s decisions, in the end she followed her father into jail for amassing illegal wealth. And that image might just stay for a while with the people.