Watch The Throne

Nawaz Sharif on the cusp of power

01 April, 2013

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ON A FRIDAY AFTERNOON IN EARLY MARCH, the two-time former prime minister and current leader of Pakistan’s opposition, Nawaz Sharif, inaugurated the refurbished Pak Tea House in Lahore—the old hangout of progressive Pakistani luminaries such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ahmad Faraz and Saadat Hassan Manto. (It was known as the India Tea House before Partition.) Sharif entered through the front door, surrounded by a contingent of security personnel in plain clothes who pushed through the crowd to sculpt a path for him. As Sharif was making his way up the cramped, winding staircase, a group of young men, presumably uninvited locals from the Mall Road outside, tried to force their way in; Sharif’s guards pushed the door on resisting hands and feet and shoulders and elbows until they were finally able to slam it shut.

“Pakistan’s writers and intellectuals are its assets,” Sharif said in a calm baritone, upstairs, where tea and fried sweets were neatly arrayed on a thick white tablecloth. “The reopening of the Pak Tea House is no less important than launching the [Lahore] Metro Bus Service project.” It was a canny little statement—the juxtaposition of two wholly dissimilar initiatives of the Punjab government, which is controlled by Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PMLN), and headed by his younger brother, Shahbaz—designed to please the small congregation of left-wing short-story writers and columnists present in the café.

Sharif spoke for about five minutes in sophisticated colloquial Urdu, shook hands with everyone present, and quickly exited the café to set off for Mardan, 500 kilometres away in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly known as the North West Frontier Province, where he was due to address a rally later in the afternoon. As soon as Sharif had departed, some prominent columnists flocked around the stooped, bright-eyed, 90-year-old Intizar Husain, Pakistan’s most venerated living fiction writer in Urdu. “Nice initiative,” the short-story writer Neelam Bashir said. She couldn’t help the sarcasm. “I’m going to vote for Imran Khan. At least he wants change.”

In March, for the first time in Pakistan’s history, a National Assembly completed its full five-year term. Campaigning is in full swing for the next elections, while the leading parties are negotiating the composition of a caretaker government that will rule until the polls, which are likely to take place in May. With its traditional rival, the Bhutto family’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), now headed by sitting president Asif Ali Zardari, plummeting in popularity, Sharif’s PMLN has emerged over the course of the last year as the front runner in the race to form the next government. Though the former cricketer Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has attracted a passionate following among urban Pakistanis—demonstrated by his massive October 2011 rally in Lahore—and mounted a new challenge to the more established parties, what Khan dubbed the PTI “tsunami” has not managed to sweep away the traditional bases of support for the country’s two large mainstream parties, the PPP and PMLN.

Nawaz Sharif waves to supporters during an election rally in Sialkot in December 2007. MOHSIN RAZA / REUTERS

According to several recent public opinion surveys of voting intentions, the PMLN currently appears to be the country’s most popular political party. The most thorough poll to date, a survey of nearly 10,000 respondents in 300 villages and 200 urban localities, conducted by the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) and Gallup Pakistan in February, found 41 percent support for the PMLN, against 17 percent for the ruling PPP and 14 percent for Khan’s PTI. In Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province and Sharif’s stronghold—which represents 148 of the 272 directly elected seats in the National Assembly—the survey found 59 percent support for the PMLN, with the PTI and PPP trailing at 14 and 10 percent.

At the rally later that day in Mardan, before a huge crowd from Pakistan’s rightist, religious, trading class—Sharif’s true constituency—his speech was a more traditional campaign stemwinder, assailing the failures of the PPP government and trumpeting the promises of the PMLN’s recently released poll manifesto, with its heavy emphasis on economic growth and development. “They have given the people nothing but suicide attacks, targeted killings, scandals of massive corruption, high inflation and excessive load-shedding,” Sharif said, adding that Zardari had “sold the sovereignty of the country to the United States.” The PMLN, Sharif declared, would “restore law and order to the country”, resolve the Kashmir issue, improve ties with Afghanistan, eliminate load-shedding in two years, and bring the development initiatives it had pursued in Punjab to the rest of the country. He focused on projects that are close to his heart: laptop schemes, the creation of industrial zones, loans on easy conditions, the expansion of the motorway system he began in 1998, during his second term as prime minister. Nawaz Sharif is a builder, and holding forth on bullet trains and motorways gets him going. He was so palpably stirred by his own words that at one point, he raised a hand—the fair, unused hand of a wealthy Kashmiri-Punjabi—to stop the chanting crowd from interrupting his speech: “No slogans right now, no slogans right now, no slogans right now.”

Sharif professes to draw inspiration from Sher Shah Suri, the Mughal-era builder of roads and works who is credited with constructing the Grand Trunk Road that links India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. (On one of the PMLN’s official Facebook pages, Sharif’s round face has been photoshopped inside Suri’s bronze helmet.) In Mardan, Sharif promised the crowd he would build a bullet train from Karachi to Peshawar: the train would leave Karachi after the fajr prayer, at dawn, and arrive in Peshawar just in time for the evening isha prayer. He pointedly mentioned that passengers would have to perform only the afternoon prayer inside their cabins. It was a classic Sharif image, blending the promise of economic development with the rhetoric of religion. “The way he frames modern requirements within the framework of religion, or social conservatism, is frankly impressive,” the television anchor and columnist Nasim Zehra told me. “He’s the only one who can do it.”

At the same time, among a certain segment of Pakistani liberals, there has been a wary reconciliation with the idea of Nawaz Sharif. In spite of his flaws—corruption, autocratic tendencies, a limited attention span—Sharif has recast himself as a defender of democracy and a critic of military interference in civilian affairs. In stark contrast to the intrigues of the 1990s, when Sharif and Benazir Bhutto took turns ejecting one another from office in collaboration with the army, Sharif has spent the past five years in opposition without attempting to bring down the PPP government, and in fact stood with it against such challenges, to the extent that he has been lampooned as “the friendly opposition”. Although Sharif remains a deeply conservative industrialist with ties to Pakistan’s religious right, many liberals cautiously admire his stance on three key issues: bringing the army to heel, pursuing peace with India and defending parliamentary democracy—areas in which Sharif’s views have clearly evolved in the wake of his own ouster, imprisonment and exile 14 years ago at the hands of General Pervez Musharraf.

MANY IN PAKISTAN BELIEVE THAT SHARIF, whose anti-military views have hardened since 1999, has come a long way since he first entered politics in 1981, when General Ghulam Jilani Khan, the governor of Punjab under the military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq, recruited Sharif into his unelected cabinet. Sharif, then 31, was a conservative, obedient, pro-military businessman with a grievance against the deposed PPP government headed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, which had nationalised the Sharif family’s steel mills—all the ingredients the military was seeking in a new leader to offset the populist PPP.

Sharif remains an old master in the realm of Pakistan’s politics of patronage, and his strategy for the upcoming elections relies heavily on his traditional vote bank and the formidable PMLN party machine, with everything that entails: welcoming candidates with influence and existing alliances into the party, embracing a non-issue-based politics to attract anyone who can help the party win, and forging ties with powerful local figures rather than national alliances. The PMLN has had a populist tinge to it since Sharif declared autonomy from what Pakistanis call the “establishment”, a euphemism for the military. At the same time, Sharif retains a strong alliance with Pakistan’s informal establishment: the country’s conservative lobby of businessmen, traders and middle-class professionals. After throwing his weight behind the Lawyers’ Movement and its campaign to restore the Chief Justice, which began in 2007, Sharif has clearly aligned himself with two branches of the state—the judiciary and the bureaucracy—to check the power of a third, the military. In short, he is in understated opposition to the army, while nurturing the support of the country’s conservatives, many of whom are conventionally pro-military.

Imran Khan’s PTI, by contrast, has staked its campaign on a rupture with traditional politics. According to Khan, feudalism and clan-based alliances, the backbone of traditional politics in Pakistan, are the country’s biggest problems. The challenge for Khan, however, is that the tenets of traditional politics still represent the surest path to victory. Where Sharif has been consistent in his electoral tactics—his cold-blooded criterion for recruiting candidates is only that they be likely winners—Khan’s position now looks confused. On the one hand, the PTI has just held democratic intra-party elections (a first for Pakistan). But at the same time, Khan has welcomed old stalwarts from the PPP and PMLN, feudal men of wealth and influence like former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, and Javed Hashmi, a former PMLN party president. The PTI may be the party of “change”, but this stance has been diluted by the party’s piecemeal embrace of traditional politics.

Additionally, Khan is generally regarded as closer to the military than his rivals, a perception that has been bolstered by allegations in the media that the generals encouraged Khan to form a third party and urged PPP and PMLN politicians to defect to the PTI. The military does not trust the PPP, based on the party’s anti-army track record (though some would argue this has not been the case under Zardari); the generals distrust Sharif for his open criticism of their interference in civilian affairs. Khan’s perceived cosiness with the army may not hurt him with many voters—as in any conservative society, Pakistanis by and large hold the military in high esteem—but it alienates him from liberals who traditionally supported the PPP for its anti-establishment stance and are now seeking an alternative after five years of terrorism, assassinations, economic stagnation and attacks on minorities. To the extent that the PPP is regarded in some circles as pro-establishment without being the establishment party, a kind of role reversal has taken place—Sharif and the PMLN are now positioned as “anti-establishment”, while retaining their traditional conservative vote bank.

PMLN supporters celebrate in Karachi in June 2012. Sharif has emerged as a front runner in the 2013 electoral race, garnering support from a wide cross section of Pakistani voters. ASIF HASSAN / AFP / Getty Images

After the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the PPP rode to power on a sympathy vote in the 2008 elections. In 2013, because of the anti-incumbency factor and its astonishingly bad governance, the PPP is expected to get fewer votes. But it is still in contention because of one fact: the PPP’s ethnic vote in Sindh—a vote for the martyred Bhuttos tightly wound around feudal fealty—is largely intact.

The PMLN won the majority of seats in Punjab in 2008, and formed a government in the province, but Sharif did not do well elsewhere. Additionally, Sharif’s spurning of the Pakistan Muslim League–Quaid (PMLQ)—composed largely of defectors from Sharif’s party who supported Musharraf’s regime—hurt him numerically in the last election. Now, Sharif has consolidated his vote bank in Punjab and, letting opportunism override personal anger, he has brought back many candidates from the PMLQ, restoring his party’s reach. To form a government in Islamabad, a party needs 172 of the 342 seats in the National Assembly. (In addition to the 272 directly elected seats, there are 70 seats reserved for women and minorities, allocated in proportion to each party’s share of the total vote.) No party is likely to win a majority outright, but if Sharif sweeps Punjab with say, 90 seats, and cobbles together 30 from other provinces, he is poised to be the leading contender to form a government.

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ON A COOL FEBRUARY MORNING, I visited Sharif at his 1,000-acre estate in Raiwind, on the outskirts of Lahore. Driving into Raiwind, Lahore’s banks, restaurants, makeshift dental clinics, mosques, marriage halls, and a “God Bless” beauty parlour gradually gave way to a sunlit semi-rural landscape: the ghostly splendor of eucalyptus, followed by orange trees, mangroves, and finally, blazing rows of mustard. A swirl of corruption allegations surrounded the construction of this estate in the 1990s—in particular, that Punjab government funds were spent to build water courses and roads leading to the property, along with energy and telecommunication networks. But no investigations were allowed since Sharif, or his brother Shahbaz, have ruled Punjab since the 1980s (apart from the Musharraf years, when the PMLQ controlled the state while the Sharifs were in exile). On the estate, a fenced yard holds peacocks, birds, and prancing deer—a small zoo of sorts. As I approached the residence, a gardener was at work, tending patches of cabbage, tomato and coriander.

Nawaz Sharif at home in 1993, flanked by two stuffed lions, a party symbol. ROBERT NICKELSBERG / TIME LIFE PICTURES / GETTY IMAGES

Inside, the house has the feel of a baroque pavilion, with white pillars, red velvet curtains, calligraphic oil paintings in reds and golds, and sunlight streaming in through tall windows. It was hard to miss the two stuffed lions—the symbol of the PMLN—parked outside the drawing room door. (They had been imported from Zimbabwe, I was told.) Sharif’s five-year-old granddaughter stopped in front of the lions as her mother, Maryam, showed me into the room. She swayed on her feet for a moment, contemplating the animals. “This one,” she said, pointing first to the lion on the right, “is nanaabbu.” She pointed to the left. “That one is Shahbaz uncle.” Though the PMLN is often described as a dynastic party just like the PPP, the reality is more complicated. Sharif’s father was not a politician, and his own sons have stayed out of politics. Shahbaz’s oldest son, Hamza, does occupy a core position in the PMLN, and appears to be heir apparent, though Nawaz recently took the surprising step—at least for a man of his conservative bearing—of allowing his daughter Maryam to join the party, though her future role is not yet certain. (“She’s very intelligent, Mashallah,” he told me.)

In the family’s private chambers, Kulsoom, Sharif’s wife, sat reading a tattered edition of John Dryden’s poetry. On the small table in front of her was an Urdu newspaper and a slim volume of TS Eliot’s poems; in the margins of its brittle, yellowing pages, she had written “v.imp”, here and there, with a leaky, blue pen. The notes were from her days as a graduate student; she studied, among other things, the influence of English poetry on the Urdu language. It is quite possible that her husband has never heard of John Dryden.

Sharif was wearing a crème-coloured shalwar kameez. The awami, or people’s, suit—as it has been called since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto popularised it in the 1970s—is meant to conceal divisions of class and power. But Sharif, in his pistachio-green waistcoast and gold-buckled loafers, his face pink and white, freckled along the brow, looked more like a European patriarch than a grassroots Punjabi politician. In the centre of the huge lounge, on a table, was a gold and silver model of Mecca and Medina, a gift from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, the monarch who freed Sharif from the coup-making generals in 2000 and hosted him for five years.

As he admitted in the astonishingly frank interviews he gave to the journalist Sohail Warraich between 2001 and 2006, which form the basis of the most comprehensive book on Sharif’s life, The Traitor Within: Nawaz Sharif’s Story in His Own Words (2008), his years in exile provided him time to reflect. The book contains some of Sharif’s most uncensored thoughts to date—from the reflective to the absurd to the accidentally honest: “The Pakistani agencies created the Taliban”; “Zia was very affectionate”; “I wanted to see the welcome Benazir received in 1986. I heard the crowds were huge.” He learnt how to use the internet, a steady flow of party loyalists kept him abreast of Pakistani news, and he began reading newspapers and books.

“I did a lot of soul-searching,” Sharif said of these years, the Western phrase unusually affecting coming from a man most comfortable in Urdu. “I looked at my mistakes, the blunders I had committed in my life and in the past, as prime minister too.” I waited for a tirade against Pervez Musharraf—how appointing him was a bad idea—but instead Sharif slipped into Urdu, and invoked Allah again and again. “I thought to myself, Allah, you know better. For what mistake am I getting this punishment? Tu mujhe itna bata zaroor yey kiss cheez ki saza hai. Takeh mein ainda repeat na karoun (Please tell me exactly for what I am being punished, so I don’t repeat my mistake). Whatever has been done, Allah tou hee behtar jaanta hai (Allah knows best). As prime minister I did a lot of good things, but I also did bad things, perhaps. Tou uski shaid mujhe punishment mil rahi hai (Perhaps I am being punished for that).”

His mournful metaphysical tone suddenly shifted to more concrete thoughts: “Every five or ten years, there have been coups in our country, which have destroyed our country. When I was in exile, I thought to myself: this must not happen again. So I will struggle for that—for the sanctity of the ballot-box. This must not happen again.”

It was during his exile that Sharif grasped the notion of taming the military. He realised that conspiring against mainstream political parties played into the hands of the brass. Sharif told me, with the unchecked frankness of a Punjabi politician, that he could have brought down the PPP government had he so desired. “I could have done a conspiracy,” he said. “I could have tried to topple the current government, but I didn’t.” He added, almost wistfully, “The time for conspiracies is now gone. That time has totally gone.” When Tahir-ul-Qadri, a dual Pak-Canadian citizen-turned-activist-preacher parachuted into Pakistan with the aim of bringing the PPP government down in January 2013, Sharif brought the opposition parties together and denounced Qadri, calling his long march a “circus”. Qadri’s thunderous appeals fizzled out soon after.

“But the PPP has failed miserably,” Sharif said, extracting a piece of cardamom from his jacket and putting it in his mouth. “They could have fixed the problem of power shortage and load-shedding—at least 50 percent of it they could have fixed, but they didn’t make any effort. They were so preoccupied with completing their five years—and I’m very happy that parliament has completed its full five years, I really am—but what have they delivered in five years? Just making a government isn’t enough.”

Since we were sitting in his controversial estate, I brought up the issue of corruption. Allegations abound of the ways Sharif made his money while in power: bending the laws to acquire properties; accepting kickbacks on major projects like a motorway from Lahore to Islamabad; privatisation of major banks during his tenure; taking loans from state-owned banks for business purposes, which were then written off on some pretext or the other; illegally converting money into foreign exchange; and unapologetic tax evasion. None of the allegations has ever led to a conviction, and Sharif flatly denies them. “Dekhein jee,” he said. “We started our business in 1937, and even at the time of Partition, Mashallah, we were very prosperous. I’ve been prime minister twice. We made a motorway and many other big projects. But there is no proof of us having received kickbacks! Not a single piece of evidence.” Khaled Ahmed, an editor at Newsweek Pakistan and an expert on the politics of the Punjab, laughed when I mentioned that Sharif paid $10 in income tax in 1999, his last year in office. “He doesn’t like taxation.” Corruption itself is not the problem, Ahmed insisted. “China and India have more corruption than Pakistan. It is really the shrinking writ of the state and terrorism that is the problem. People are running away, and they are taking their money with them.”

I asked Sharif if he was only criticising the army now because Musharraf had ejected him from office and sent him into exile. “I don’t criticise the army,” he protested. “I critique the mindset that creates conspiracies against democracy.” I pushed him further, asking if he would still see it this way if the army had not given him a rough time personally. “Absolutely,” he said, softly. “Even if they had not done anything to me, I have come to the conclusion that whatever has happened to us in the last few decades”—the repeated imposition of military rule—“has been terrible.”

Whatever his reasons, Sharif, who had clashed with several army chiefs in the decade prior to his fateful confrontation with Musharraf (and cooperated with a few others to cause Benazir Bhutto trouble during her two terms as prime minister), now finds himself aligned with the intelligentsia’s growing resentment of the military’s unchecked power. “It was inconceivable a decade ago that a politician from the Punjab would question the resource allocation and decision-making within the Pakistani army,” said Raza Rumi, a liberal commentator and the director of the Jinnah Institute think tank in Islamabad. “The world seems to have ignored this major tectonic shift within Pakistan’s polity, whereby the largest conservative province has a popular voice, Mian Nawaz Sharif, calling for redressal of the civil-military imbalance.”

“If Sharif comes to power,” a retired military officer recently remarked, referring to the fleet of BMWs and Land Cruisers in which many of the top brass currently travel, “he will put the generals in Suzukis.” Jehangir Karamat, who was Chief of Army Staff from 1996 until 1998, when he was forced to resign by Sharif, put it to me this way: “The air force, army and navy chiefs used to get a plot, after retirement, from the government—in addition to other perks. Sharif did away with the plot, and the policy is in place till today. In fact, because he was on an austerity drive, he also told the officers they would not be able to import duty-free cars. A good thing.”

The military in Pakistan runs banks, cement and fertiliser plants, insurance and leasing companies, armaments factories, housing estates. It even makes corn flakes. Retiring senior officers enter the exclusive club of the rich, landed, and influential. Serving officers, who don’t share Karamat’s sober, post-retirement analysis, look far less kindly upon those who would put them in their place.

Sharif may be sincere when he insists that his newfound determination to limit the army’s role in civilian affairs is the product of his “soul-searching” in exile and not merely a desire to settle scores with those who removed him. But when he reflects on his own past errors, his tangle with Musharraf looms large. “One of the biggest mistakes I made,” Sharif tells me, “was not appointing the army chief based on seniority and merit”—there were two chiefs ahead of Musharraf. “But two or three people in my circle supported Musharraf very strongly and I fell in their trap. I should have gone on merit. That was my mistake.” (According to many accounts, Sharif’s younger brother Shahbaz was one of two men who pushed for Musharraf.) “What Musharraf did was not just unconstitutional,” Sharif said with a grimace, referring to the 1999 coup that toppled his government. “It was revenge. He didn’t want to see my face.”

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ON 12 OCTOBER 1999, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif finally decided to remove the army chief from office. Sharif had appointed Pervez Musharraf in October 1998, but had soon come to regret the decision. He had chosen Musharraf because he was an Urdu-speaking muhajir soldier whose family had come to Pakistan at the time of Partition. Sharif believed Musharraf would be a pliable and non-conspiratorial chief, with no real sway in Pakistan’s Punjabi-dominated army. Musharraf, for his part, was extremely deferential in the early months of his appointment—he knew he had been selected out of turn; he also knew Sharif put a premium on loyalty. Soon, however, like many of his colleagues in the army, Musharraf began to regard Sharif as a paranoid, despotic civilian who didn’t fully understand complex matters of national security.

One of Musharraf’s early decisions after becoming army chief was to explore the possibility of making headway in the disputed region of Kashmir. In the spring of 1999, soon after Sharif and India’s prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee signed the Lahore Declaration, a bilateral treaty for normalisation of relations which included a pledge to find a peaceful solution to conflict in Kashmir, Musharraf gave secret orders to Pakistani troops to cross the Line of Control. In other words, just as Sharif was delicately putting Kashmir on the diplomatic backburner, Musharraf was preparing to internationalise the Kashmir dispute. Pakistani soldiers, posing as Kashmiri mujahideen, scaled the Himalayan peaks until they arrived in the town of Kargil, a base camp for Indian soldiers stationed on top of the Siachen glacier.

Kargil was, in army parlance, an “unheld area”—an inhospitable region along the Line of Control, abandoned by both sides during the winter. The surreptitiously advancing Pakistani troops escaped the notice of the Indians in the early weeks of 1999, and made initial territorial gains. When the incursion was discovered in the first week of May—Indian army patrols were tipped off by local shepherds—New Delhi did not immediately appreciate the extent of Musharraf’s calculations. A carefully crafted narrative, meanwhile, was being rolled out to the Pakistani public by the media managers of the military: Kashmiri mujahideen had “reclaimed” Indian-held territory.

But cross-border fire increased, as did media-led jingoism in both countries. Given the secretive nature of the operation, Pakistani papers made no mention of the fact that the Pakistani army had been the instigator, and its own soldiers, holed up at treacherous heights with a blocked supply route for food, were reduced to eating snow as the helicopter gunships roared through the Kashmiri skies.

After a decade and a half of silence, the Kargil war has come back into the news in the last few months. Pakistani talk show hosts on private TV channels have openly discussed how the miscalculation of the Pakistan Army resulted in confusion at home, defeat in Kargil, and humiliation internationally. Most recently, in January, Lieutenant General (retd) Shahid Aziz, a former chief of general staff of the Pakistani Army, published a book in Urdu, For How Long This Silence, arguing that the Kargil adventure was a “four-man show”, a reference to the gang of four generals—Musharraf and three other top commanders—who conceived and executed it. This is the first time someone so high up in the ranks—Aziz headed the analysis wing of the ISI—has spoken with frankness about Kargil. Aziz wrote that Musharraf worked on a policy of “need to know”. In other words, Musharraf would issue orders to only those who were required to implement them instead of first consulting corps commanders and other military officers.

Pervez Musharraf and Nawaz Sharif at Kail, Kashmir, in 1999, the year of the Kargil War. Reuters

Sharif’s longstanding allegation—that Musharraf kept him in the dark about Kargil—is now generally accepted by Pakistan watchers both at home and abroad, though some argue that Musharraf had briefed Sharif on elements of the operation and the prime minister failed to understand its full scope. When I brought up the subject during our meeting, Sharif replied confidently. “My position is now being vindicated,” he said. “I think everyone now knows who the liars are and who the truth-tellers are.” He adjusted himself on the floral-patterned sofa, took out rimless spectacles from his breast-pocket and held them aloft, like a wand. “This is enough for me.”

Soon after India cried foul, Musharraf pressured Sharif to meet US President Bill Clinton to “explain” the Kargil “situation” and bail out Pakistan. “I did a lot on Musharraf’s urging that I regret,” Sharif told me. As he put it to journalist Warraich while in exile, “Musharraf did the dirty work, but I was made to suffer for it.” Knowing that a political leader who had lost a war would be unlikely to win another election, Sharif clambered on to a plane to Washington, DC, without having secured an appointment with the president of the United States. Worried about the possibility of a wider war between India and Pakistan, Clinton made a special exception on 4 July 1999, to meet the Pakistani prime minister. He made it clear that Pakistan was the aggressor and should withdraw immediately. Sharif had to concede to India’s demands; he returned home a defeated man.

For Sharif, things had changed from the heady days of May 1998, when, just over two weeks after India tested its nuclear weapons, Sharif followed suit and triumphantly detonated the world’s first “Islamic bomb”. Two memoirs by Sharif’s then cabinet members, foreign minister Gohar Ayub (the son of General Ayub Khan), and finance minister Sartaj Aziz, have diplomatically suggested that Sharif was hesitant to test. In Glimpses into the Corridors of Power (2007), Ayub argues that it was his insistence, in part, that swayed the prime minister to give in to nationalist sentiment at home. During our conversation, Sharif said that until India tested its nuclear devices, he had “never even thought about it”. During his rally in Mardan, however, Sharif tweaked his position, telling the crowd of young and old Pashtuns that the US had offered him $5 billion for not testing the bomb, and he rejected the offer in the best national interest.

In Raiwind, he told me, “We had the bomb, we’d carried out cold tests of the bomb, but nobody had carried out a hot test of the bomb. We never thought, ‘Let us test our bomb.’ We knew the implications. If I were mad, I’d have tested much before! The thing is, we have been in a very unfortunate race with India.”

“An arms race?” I asked. “An arms race,” he conceded grimly. “We waste all our money on F-16s. They buy tanks, we also buy tanks. We also waste our resources. Both countries have wasted billions of dollars into building up defence.” After a long pause, he said, “I think we should sit down with India. Both countries—you have to do it together—just as America and Soviet Union figured it out, India and Pakistan need to figure it out, too.”

FOLLOWING KARGIL, jail and a decade-long exile paved the way for Sharif’s avowed distance from the military establishment that had birthed him. When I gently suggested that he, too, was a creation of the “establishment”, he was quick to cite history. “Zulfikar Ali Bhutto came in Ayub Khan’s time, if you remember. General Ayub was a dictator. When I started my career in politics, there was a military dictatorship. Now, one couldn’t have fought with them upon entering the political arena for the first time.” It was a dissembling response. “My real mistake,” he said quickly, “was to appoint Musharraf.” This fixation on personal enmities represents a narrow view of history, but it suits the political class. Ayub Khan’s “mistake” was to make Zulfikar Ali Bhutto a minister; Bhutto’s mistake was to make Zia-ul-Haq the army chief; Zia’s mistake was to promote Nawaz Sharif; Benazir Bhutto’s mistake was to make Farooq Leghari the president; Leghari’s mistake was to side with Sharif over Bhutto; Sharif’s mistake was to make Musharraf the army chief; Musharraf’s mistake was to cut a deal with Benazir. And so on.

In reality, since Sharif has come of political age, he has had problems with several army chiefs. In 1991, over a disagreement about Pakistan’s role in the Gulf War, General Mirza Aslam Beg tried to create space for a coup. Sharif thwarted Beg, narrowly survived, and tried to appoint an army chief of his choice. But under Pakistan’s Constitution, the president selects the army chief. President Ghulam Ishaq Khan chose General Asif Nawaz as the chief in 1991. Sharif immediately developed problems with Asif Nawaz over the issue of the writ of the army versus the writ of the government. In 1992, Nawaz wanted to carry out a military operation against the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the Karachi-based secular political party known for its routine embrace of violence—with whom Sharif had an alliance. Sharif tried to persuade him against it, but the army went ahead and defanged the MQM. When Asif Nawaz died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1993, Sharif again sought to select an army chief—this time, he wanted a Punjabi loyalist. But Ishaq Khan, hoping to strengthen his own position, narrowed in on General Waheed Kakar, a Pashto-speaking compatriot who was number five in the military’s hierarchy of seniority.

Sharif and Ishaq Khan had developed tense relations by this time: Ishaq Khan accused Sharif of corruption and of hounding his detractors. Within months, Ishaq Khan dismissed Sharif, but the Supreme Court restored him as prime minister. A gridlock ensued, compelling Kakar to show the exit to both and reorder fresh elections. In Sharif’s view, the army should have compelled Ishaq Khan rather than himself, a democratically-elected prime minister, to resign: he never forgave the army for siding with Ishaq Khan.

After Benazir Bhutto returned to power in 1993, she appointed the mild-mannered General Jehangir Karamat as chief of army staff. When Sharif came back into office in 1997, he first got rid of the president and chief justice, who had opposed Bhutto and were now blocking his autocratic ambitions, and then attempted to control the army chief. Barely three months before Karamat was scheduled to retire in 1998, Sharif sacked him for proposing a national security council to be run jointly by the military and elected civilians, seeing in Karamat’s plan a threat to his own power as prime minister. Now, Sharif was rampant: he had a two-thirds majority in parliament, a loyalist new president in Rafiq Tarrar, and for the first time in his political career, he was poised to handpick an army chief. (He chose Pervez Musharraf.)

Sharif in a private moment before a press conference in 2008. Jerry Lampen / REUTERS

When I mentioned that Musharraf routinely told newspaper editors and opinion-makers in the West that Sharif had “a beard in his belly”—that his true sympathies lay with the fundamentalists—Sharif looked taken aback, and unleashed our meeting’s longest monologue. “He wanted to be the blue-eyed boy of the West so he made statements like that. Musharraf was the one who had an understanding with those elements who have been creating trouble for Pakistan. The establishment needs this type of strength—power, support—from such elements. Because when they want to sideline democratic forces, they need to bolster their support from other angles.

“This problem of Pakistan’s, this has been created neither by me, nor by democratic forces. This is the work of the establishment. If democracy had continued its course, if dictators hadn’t thrust their way into power, we would not be seeing what we are seeing today. Tell me something: why was there no terrorism in Pakistan on the 12th of October 1999? Musharraf should give an answer to these things.”

Sharif didn’t explicitly name the Islamic and jihadi parties who fall into this category of militant zealots. “Let me tell you: martial law is a breeding ground for extremism and terrorism. Musharraf constantly sidelined the democratic forces of Pakistan: first the people’s party, then Benazir Bhutto personally, then our party. To cover-up his own doings, he tried to build up that image of me. Otherwise, when I left in 1999, the way that we ran our government was absolutely acceptable to the West. And to the East, to the North, to the South!”

Musharraf’s metaphor may rankle Sharif, but the core of his constituency remains Pakistan’s conservative, religious class—a fact that gives continued ammunition to Sharif’s critics, who are distinctly unimpressed by his more recent criticism of the military. Nighat Said, the director of ASR, a radical NGO that champions women’s rights and a secular, de-militarised Pakistan, told me she thinks Sharif has “not changed in any fundamental way”. Sharif, she believes, has a personal vendetta against the military—“sort of like unrequited love”. His party, she argues, does not share Sharif’s anti-military stance. “Sharif was and remains Zia-ul-Haq’s protégé.”

| 4 |

IN FRONT OF LAHORE’S JINNAH LIBRARY, situated in the middle of a public garden of the same name, a fountain shoots long warm beams of water into the air. The building overlooking the fountain was constructed in the mid 19th century during British rule; it was a place where the colonial elite congregated for tea, drinks, bridge and dancing. In the 1980s the club was touched by Zia-ul-Haq’s civilising zeal and converted into a library.

Rows of yellow roses and deciduous shrub surround the fountain. It is in this garden, around the fountain, that a young Nawaz Sharif would pant behind his father in the 1960s. “I used to follow him,” Sharif remembered. “Whatever he did, I did that too. If he was running, then I would run too. If he was walking, then I would walk too.”

That he followed his father in “whatever he did” is a telling admission on a broader level: it was on his father’s insistence that a diffident Nawaz got into politics. “I remember him as the fair, shy son of his father,” said Pervaiz Elahi, a former member of the PMLN and former chief minister of Punjab, who is now an opponent of Sharif. “When he entered politics and had to make his first short speech in Sargodha, his ears turned scarlet.”

Muhammad Sharif, a Kashmiri whose ancestors migrated to Amritsar, and soon after Partition to Lahore, built a steel business in Pakistan along with his brothers and cousins, which grew into an industrial conglomerate—with interests in steel, sugar and textiles—called the Ittefaq Group. In 1972, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto nationalised Pakistan’s major private industries, including the Ittefaq foundries. Reeling from financial pressure, Muhammad Sharif encouraged his eldest son to join politics after Bhutto’s fall in 1977 in order to protect the family’s business interests.

“I was never interested in politics,” Sharif told me when I asked him how he came to join the Punjab government in the early 1980s. “I never thought I would enter politics. I used to think, keh itni tension hoti hai, kya karte hain (there’s so much tension involved, what do they do), how do they manage? I had no intention of getting into politics at all.”

Buss,” he continued, looking lost in thought for a moment. “I don’t know how it happened. All of a sudden, I was picked up by General Jilani, and he wanted to induct me into his cabinet. I had graduated only a few years earlier. I was in my own business. But soon after I finished my studies, our factory was nationalised by Mr Bhutto. It fell into the 32 factories that were initially nationalised. All of a sudden, we were deprived of everything. Jo saara invested tha woh lost ho gya (All that we invested was lost).”

Back then, it is said, Nawaz Sharif had a friend who was related to Ghulam Jilani Khan, then serving as the appointed governor of Punjab under Zia. One day, Sharif was taken by his friend to have tea with Jilani, who found the young man good-natured and obedient. The conversation turned to a house Jilani was building, around the periphery of which he wished to erect an iron fence; he asked Sharif if Ittefaq foundries might be interested in building the fence for him. Sharif replied politely that he would ask his father and get back to the governor with an answer. But when Muhammad Sharif heard what had transpired, he rebuked Nawaz for his naïveté. The Sharifs quickly built and delivered the iron fence, and no bill was ever sent.

Sharif with his father, Mian Muhammad Sharif, whom he considered a mentor and an inspiration. Nawaz’s reverence for “Abba jee” led to many jokes in Pakistan about his filial piety. AFP / Getty Images

Generals Zia and Jilani saw the Sharifs as an apolitical business family who hated the Bhuttos, and were ready to express their loyalty to the military. In 1979, the Tehreek-e-Istiqlal, which Sharif had recently joined, was poised to triumph in the polls. But Zia postponed the polls, and Sharif quickly turned his allegiance to the dictator. In 1980 Zia denationalised the Sharif’s business, and returned it to them with more than their due share of compensation. A year later, Jilani made Nawaz a minister in his cabinet, elevating him later to the choicest slot of finance minister. Sharif duly became the chief minister of Punjab after Zia’s non-party polls in 1985 were boycotted by the PPP. The father-and-son business was now ready to profit from a heavy dose of pro-establishment politics.

Zia perished in an air crash in 1988, and the Pakistan People’s Party, led by Benazir Bhutto, who had returned from exile two years earlier, came to power in December of the same year amid country-wide celebrations. During the time between Bhutto’s return and elevation to prime minister, Sharif’s Muslim League had become part of the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI), an anti-Bhutto political alliance later shown to have been funded by the ISI. The IJI whipped up Punjabi nationalism for the first time under the slogan “Jaag Punjabi jaag! (Wake, Punjabi, wake!)” In the 1988 elections, thanks to the assistance of the ISI, the province was captured by Sharif, even as the rest of the country went Benazir Bhutto’s way. Having begun his apprenticeship under a military dictator, Sharif had absorbed the conservative, rightist politics of Zia-ul-Haq. It was during Benazir’s first tenure as prime minister that Sharif, aided and abetted by the military, emerged as her most determined political foe.

Sharif led the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad coalition in the 1988 elections against the Bhutto-led PPP, making common cause with other conservative, rightist parties. ABBAS / MAGNUM PHOTOS

THOUGH AN UPPER MIDDLE-CLASS Punjabi-Kashmiri family, the Sharifs were also Victorian in their way—tightly knit, religious, loyal, conservative. If conflict existed, it was neither described nor defined as an issue of concern. Nawaz was an obedient son: in later years, as prime minister, he repeatedly sought his father’s counsel—to the point where it became a national joke. Warraich, the journalist who observed Sharif at close quarters during his time in exile, told me that “the real love of Nawaz Sharif’s life was his father”, and recounted a scene from the family’s time in Saudi Arabia. “Nawaz Sharif used to bring his father into the room, on a wheelchair, and put him in front of the family. Even though by then his father could not talk, he used to bring him there, regardless, and talk to him about everything.”

I put the question to Sharif in exactly these terms: was your father the real love of your life? His response was unselfconscious and distinctly Punjabi in its desire to celebrate the obvious: “Absolutely correct. He was my mentor. I drew a lot of inspiration and guidance from him. When I was prime minister people made a lot of fun of the fact that aye Nawaz Sharif prime minister saara kuj Abba jee kolon jaa ke puchda aye! (this prime minister Nawaz Sharif consults his father on every matter!)” he told me. “But I felt very proud of it.” He added, in a lower voice, “Even if people said it tauntingly. Theek hai jee, agar Abba jee hain tou Abba jee ki respect karni chahye (Alright, if Abba jee is there, Abba jee must be respected).”

At the time, however, Sharif was far less sanguine about the jibes. The Friday Times, an English-language weekly in Lahore, began to print a satirical column in Sharif’s voice—an idiom blending Punjabi syntax with intermediate English—in 1990. Throughout the 1990s, it poked fun at Sharif’s relationship with his father: “Whatever Abba jee is saying,” went a typical line, “I am doing.” (Full disclosure: the newspaper is published by my parents, Najam Sethi and Jugnu Mohsin.) In 1992, shortly after he became prime minister, Sharif sent his police chief to warn them against publishing any more references to “Abba Jee”. The threats continued until my mother obtained a meeting with then president Ghulam Ishaq Khan, after which the government backed off. (In 1999, during his second term in office, Sharif had my father jailed for a month on spurious charges of treason, likely in retaliation for an interview he had given to the producers of a BBC documentary focusing on a corruption scandal involving the Sharif family; around the same time, Sharif had arrested two other journalists who had also spoken to the BBC. A month after his arrest, the Supreme Court ordered his unconditional release. Sharif later apologised, and the two men now have cordial relations.)

It was at his father’s urging that Sharif, during his first term as prime minister, passed the Shariat Ordinance, making religious observance and practice a constitutional necessity. Then as now, the PMLN positioned itself as the promoter and architect of Pakistan’s Islamic nationalism, and those who remain wary of Sharif invariably point to this track record, and his close relations with the Saudi royal family, to argue his commitment to democracy and civilian rule is merely superficial. The activist Nighat Said argued that Sharif’s stand against the army’s involvement in politics was hardly a sufficient reason for liberals to lend him their support. “I can’t look at the civil-military phenomenon in isolation and praise him,” she said. “What is his record on women’s rights? At least with the PPP I have a sense of being able to breathe.”

Nasim Zehra, the TV anchor, thinks Sharif serves a different function in today’s Pakistan. She envisions him as a modern man who nonetheless boasts bona fide conservative credentials in an increasingly conservative Pakistan; a man who, via his commitment to free-market economics, porous borders, trade with India and the world, can strengthen Pakistan’s democratic moorings. Sharif is the man, she noted, who in his second term shifted Pakistan’s weekend from Friday–Saturday to Saturday–Sunday, in line with global custom, by appearing on television one day and quoting a verse from the Quran that decrees Muslims get back to work after the Friday prayer. Pakistan had followed the Western weekend from independence to 1977, when the privately secular but publicly feeble Zulfikar Ali Bhutto shifted the days to appease religious clerics. Striking down Bhutto’s decision was “something even Benazir, his daughter, failed to do,” Zehra added.

For many, Sharif’s alliance with the religious right remains a paramount concern, particularly at a moment when the country has been aflame with violent attacks on minority groups, carried out by banned extremist outfits headquartered in Punjab. Numerous media reports have suggested that the Punjab government has resisted calls from the federal government to crack down on terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP)—implicated in the killings of hundreds of Shia and other minorities. According to these reports, the PMLN has negotiated seat-adjustment deals with the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), the “official” name of the banned SSP, under which the parties agree not to contest against one another in particular seats and to support one another’s candidates. The PMLN has denied any formal electoral arrangements with the ASWJ, but ASWJ leaders have confirmed as much to reporters, and evidence suggests the party has lent support to PMLN candidates in the recent past. The Punjab law minister, Rana Sanaullah, a senior leader in the PMLN, is also said to have a cosy relationship with the LeJ: he was seen campaigning alongside an SSP leader during a 2010 by-election, and photographs recently emerged of him addressing an ASWJ rally.

In 1998, during his second term as prime minister, Sharif launched a harsh crackdown against both LeJ and SSP, in which dozens of militants were killed; the following year, LeJ attempted to assassinate Sharif by bombing a bridge his motorcade was about to cross. Khaled Ahmed of Newsweek Pakistan, a secular expert on Punjab politics, was surprisingly unperturbed when I raised the question of Sharif’s cooperative political relationship with the ASWJ, which he depicted as a matter of electoral necessity. “No party can win in south Punjab until they talk to these elements,” he said. “Everyone has an alliance of sorts with them.” South Punjab is an impoverished, swelteringly hot part of the country that has long been a recruiting ground for state-sanctioned jihadi groups. The feudal landlords of the region, irrespective of party, pay money to the jihadi groups, partly because they believe in the anti-Shia crusade and partly for protection purposes, Ahmed explained. (Indeed, allegations soon emerged that the PPP had also conducted seat-adjustment negotiations with the ASWJ.)

More than anything, Ahmed said, these electoral alliances tell us something about the weakness of the Pakistani state. “These non-state actors continue to be used by the army—that’s the problem. So Pakistan’s politicians have to make adjustments if they want to participate in elections.” I reminded him that Imran Khan has, so far, eschewed such alliances with sectarian hardliners. He laughed, and said, “Imran can benefit without aligning because of his avowed softness towards the Taliban. Had Nawaz not got in first, Imran might have considered his options with them.”

In their scramble for electoral majorities, Pakistani parties are forced to rely on a variety of gimmicks, shinily-packaged welfare programs (the PMLN’s laptop scheme, the PPP’s Benazir Income Support Program), promises of national sovereignty, and deals with extremists. But the fact remains that Imran Khan does not have an open alliance with jihadi groups whereas the PMLN has a record of using political Islam to suit its ends.

The PMLN’s critics have been quick to add that the Punjab government’s record protecting minorities from sectarian violence leaves much to be desired. Three years after the August 2009 anti-Christian riots in Gojra, Punjab, in which eight members of the Christian community were burnt alive and over 100 houses set on fire by Muslims, the Punjab government is refusing to make public the findings of the Gojra judicial tribunal. Its report was submitted to Shahbaz Sharif in October 2009, seeking an immediate implementation of the recommendations. Though its main conclusions have reached the media, the report has not been made public because of its indictment of the Punjab government in refusing to bring the perpetrators to justice. According to reporter Amir Mir of The News newspaper, the 258-page inquiry report held the Punjab police responsible for the events of the massacre, saying the police should have deployed forces in sufficient numbers to stop violence against the Christian community.

Sharif takes succour from the fact that the Islamists’ share of the popular vote has declined with every election since the creation of Pakistan—it creates space for his party, after all—but he seems unlikely to confront non-state religious outfits. In early February this year, a video message from a Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan spokesperson proposed peace negotiations with Islamabad, but demanded guarantors who would stand assurance against the Pakistani army breaking any agreements. Sharif, named as one of the guarantors, refused to accept this, but publicly asked that the PPP-led government take the initiative. I asked him why the TTP had suggested his name as one of the guarantors.

“I don’t know, frankly,” he said. “Look at the USA! They are talking to the Taliban also! Second, the guy who was killed in the Abbottabad operation—what’s his name? Yes, Osama bin Laden. Osama bin Laden was Americans’ biggest ally in the 1990s. They were working together to oust the Soviet troops.”

“On certain issues I have very principled stands,” he said to me. “People don’t like that.”

| 5 |

IF THE POLLS ARE CORRECT, and Sharif can retain his lead and form a coalition, he will take office as the first person in Pakistan’s history to become prime minister three times, and do so as a result of a historic transition from one civilian administration to another. But what does he want to achieve?

Any reasonably intelligent businessman can profit under a “pro-growth” government simply by knowing a few of the right people, so further money-making seems unlikely to be Sharif’s main motivation. Power, on the other hand, comes only from political victory. “People thought Nawaz Sharif was never going to come back,” Mehmal Sarfraz, a left-leaning journalist, told me. “More than anything else, in the kind of society Pakistan is, Nawaz Sharif wants to stay politically relevant. He has unfinished business.”

Sharif has not only survived, he has managed, after eight years in exile, to lead his party to the cusp of an election victory—and to do so while being in an understated opposition to the country’s most powerful institution, which many of his constituents still trust and respect. When I met Jehangir Karamat, the retired chief of army staff whom Sharif once sacked, he told me he had “personally never been for the military’s overarching influence in politics”. Sharif clearly feels the same way, but he cannot state this too openly, too brazenly, and live to be a practicing politician in Pakistan today.

As our conversation was coming to a close, I asked Sharif, out of curiosity, where he had been on the day that Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. He was campaigning in Rawalpindi with a party colleague, he told me. Benazir had called him in the morning, he said, and when he called her back he was told she was in Liaquat Bagh, in the same city, addressing a large crowd and would call him back after the rally.

In 2006, Sharif and Bhutto had signed a Charter of Democracy, establishing an alliance to end Musharraf’s military rule and return the country to civilian control. In October 2007, Bhutto took the risk of returning to Pakistan; by that point, Sharif told me, he had developed “a very good relationship” with his former rival.

“A while after I was told she would return my call after the rally,” he continued, “somebody called and said, ‘Koi haadsa ho gya hai (Something terrible has happened)’.” Then he got another call which confirmed the worst: Bhutto had been assassinated. Sharif dropped his campaigning and rushed to the hospital. “When I got there, people came to our car saying, ‘Mian Sahab, what has happened to Bibi? What has happened to our Bibi?’ When I saw their tears, I could not contain mine. Aansou tou balkey kya (forget the tears), I kept feeling a lot of pain.”

Most reports blamed Bhutto’s assassination on the TTP leader Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a drone strike in 2009. But subsequent investigations by Scotland Yard and the United Nations also raised questions about the inadequate security Bhutto had been provided, and the hasty move—allegedly on the orders of military intelligence—to wash down the crime scene, eliminating possible evidence. Bhutto had been killed while waving to crowds from the sunroof of a car two weeks before parliamentary elections. Like Sharif, she was a twice-elected prime minister and the leader of a national party, vying for a third term in office. Like Sharif, she had returned, after eight years in exile. Sharif cried out of solidarity, those close to him say, but he was also terrorised and frightened. If they could kill her, they could get him, too.

It is a costly thing, in Pakistan, to disagree on the “fundamentals” of the exercise of power with certain institutions. Bhutto’s death haunts Sharif, and yet, as he sustains his earnest riffs on bullet trains and the ballot box, he continues to defy it. I was reminded of what Khaled Ahmed had said when I challenged his explanation for Sharif’s accommodation with extremist religious parties: “In the run-up to the elections,” Ahmed told me, “why should he become a martyr? Who does that benefit?”

In an expansive mood while in exile, Sharif told Warraich one evening: “Once the chief of army staff assumes his title, he begins to think of himself as a king, or super prime minister.” So if Sharif comes back to power, will he really put the generals into Suzukis? He may not go that far, but he will expect the military to heed his legitimacy. He will not rush into embracing India as a long-lost friend, but he will not be drawn into another military adventure. He wants to have a friendly working relationship with the United States and the international community, but he will neither accept them as masters nor spurn them as adversaries. He may once again crack down on the Taliban inside Pakistan—but if he does so, he will still accommodate, as he has always done, the deeply conservative sentiments of religious parties and groups. This, after all, is his history and his patrimony: an old and deep lesson from the real love of his life.

Correction: The caption of one photograph accompanying this story has been modified; the original caption stated incorrectly that Sharif was pictured inside his Raiwind estate. The Caravan regrets the error.