The first thing that strikes you about Nawaz Sharif is his smile. It’s big and broad and seems to cover his large face. And when he smiles his eyes light up. The combined effect makes him look both youthful and mischievous. There are moments when you suspect Mr. Sharif knows this and uses his obvious charm strategically.
The second striking feature is his courtesy. It’s a combination of language, soft-spokenness, demeanour and the feeling you get that he is actually concerned about you. I have never met a Head of Government who exudes courtesy so fulsomely.
We met at his luxurious Raiwind Estate outside Lahore. Peacocks and deer frolic in the gardens. Inside the palatial house, two large stuffed lions stand sentinel outside the drawing room door. A ceaseless succession of servants serve trays laden with a variety of snacks, juices, tea and coffee.
A sizeable collection of courtiers, colleagues and secretaries stand dutifully in the large entrance hall and you know Nawaz Sharif is approaching by the sudden hush that descends on them. Although civilians they seem to snap to attention.
When he walks in it’s obvious Mr. Sharif cuts a presence. He is not a tall man and he is in danger of becoming fat. But that’s not why he stands out. Nor because he struts or swaggers. Instead, he seems to silently glide in. It’s the surprise that catches your attention.
On the morning I met him, Nawaz Sharif was wearing a pale blue shalwar-kameez with a grey waistcoat and matching cufflinks. Though there was nothing flash about his appearance it was unmistakably bespoke.
Fourteen years out of power have taught Nawaz Sharif to weigh his words carefully. He knows what he wants to say and will not be pushed into saying more. Yet when I interviewed him his message to India was carefully calculated, consciously delivered and forcefully underlined by his obvious sincerity.
Nawaz Sharif said he would not permit Pakistani territory to be used for any terrorist activities against India. The LET, though already banned, would be effectively curbed. Hafiz Saeed’s hate speeches would no longer be tolerated.
Of course, we’ve heard other Pakistani leaders say similar things but Nawaz Sharif went a lot further. He will investigate allegations of ISI involvement in 26/11. In fact, he offered India a joint investigation and the full sharing of what it reveals. He also promised a thorough inquiry into Kargil and agreed to share its full report with the Indian government.
When it came to the economy, Nawaz Sharif said he welcomed Indian investment, particularly in power plants. Once again, his eyes lit up.
The critical question is can he deliver on all of this? Time alone will tell. But no other Pakistani leader has spoken so clearly and candidly. That could be one reason to trust him.
At the end of two half hour interviews, I asked if he had a message for the Indian people and he seized the opportunity, conveying in the process both his passion and sincerity. He began in English but cleverly switched to Punjabi for his punch line: “Baadshao baitho saade naal, dil saaf karo, asi 1947 de pehle ikko hi mulka sa, aur koi farak naahin si, udar te edar.”
“We have a lot of love and affection for you … we must become good friends and hold each other’s hands … let us make a new beginning.” And, then, reverting to Punjabi, ended “Meri duwaan tuwade naal hain.”
Views expressed by the author are personal