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Maryam Nawaz Sharif: Rising star on Pakistan's political firmament

Sunday, 15 December 2013 - 1:34pm IST Updated: Sunday, 15 December 2013 - 11:23pm IST | Agency: IANS

She has the face of a movie star, political savvy of Benazir Bhutto and a rising role model for the nation's youth as "abba," Prime Minister Nawas Sharif, reposes growing trust in her abilities.

Meet Maryam Nawaz Sharif, 40, the new political star on Pakistan's political firmament -- twitter-savvy, yet traditional, and certainly among the most arresting faces in South Asian dynastic politics.

Last month, the Cambride-doctoral-aspirant daughter of Pakistan prime minister Sharif -- notice how Maryam retains her maiden name -- was named chairperson of the PM Youth Programme, an outreach of the six-month-old Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) regime.

Within 15 days of her investiture, Ms. Sharif has been tasked to spearhead the most ambitious Youth Loan Scheme in Pakistan's history. She'll work pro bono and ensure bankers and civil servants, one-and-a-half times her age, dispense loans worth Pakistani Rs.100 billion (Nearly $9.5 billion) in the next seven months to some 100,000 Pakistani entrepreneurs, 50 percent being women.

Ms. Sharif's presence has ensured that the prime minister himself sat with the team for over 60 hours and promised zero-tolerance to political jockeying, those associated with the programme told this IANS columnist during a visit here. Fifty-five model business plans have now been posted to guide the applicants.

Hereafter, monthly ballots will decide who gets the first tranche of loans. Those left out - but whose proposals matched the criteria otherwise - will flow into the next month's ballot. The loans entail a service charge of eight percent. Banks will subsidize the remaining seven percent.

A record 2.1 million application forms have been downloaded over just six days.

Such numbers are both a challenge and an opportunity for the elegant Lahore-born known to relax to the music of Rahat Fateh Ali. If she can pull off the loans without her bankers courting a scandal, schemes on micro businesses, skill development, fee reimbursement, and laptop computers will be the other components of the Youth Programme.

"We're happy, so long as the money comes back," the chairman of a top Pakistani Bank told this IANS columnist informally.

An alumna of the Convent of Jesus and Mary in Lahore, Ms. Sharif is now a direct counterweight for the youth constituency coveted by cricketer and Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf leader Imran Khan.

Khan leads, say on twitter, with over 800,000 follows, but Ms. Sharif is not doing too badly at 200,000 already. It's a medium she used extensively to connect with new-age Pakistan during the election campaign that culminated in May last. Evidence? Ms. Sharif has 26,000 tweets under her belt, nearly 15 times more than the more-reticent Khan.

For the record, Fatima Bhutto, of the Bhutto family, is marginally ahead at 238,000, though Bilawal, the official political heir of slain prime minister Benazir Bhutto, languishes at 98,000.

The Sharif clan isn't without internecine claims, though. While Nawaz Sharif's two sons, Hussain and Hassan, haven't shown a direct interest in politics so far, his brother Shahbaz, who is the ruling party's No.2 and chief minister of Punjab, has a talented son, Hamza, 39, who is already a member of the National Assembly.

Beyond a famous maiden surname, Ms. Sharif's rapid climb is due to tact and communication. A query on whether the clause of a "guarantor" for the grant of money can be be replaced by "property papers" evoked an immediate response triggering dozens of "likes" and reteets.

So do hundreds of questions even on specific project ideas. Result? The Pakistani visual media, not just state-owned PTV, finds Ms. Sharif's public engagements a manna for their ratings.

Her tact was in evidence when Mr. Sharif threw out her husband, one Capt. Mohd. Safdar, from PML-N last year.

"I'm glad that my father preferred justice and equity over familial relations. This is an unexampled step, which negated the notion that PMLN is a family party or patronises favouritism. No one is above law. Justice & fairness must prevail. PMLN stands for rule of law," Ms. Sharif said.

But not before tweeting a soothing message on her husband. "I am also glad that Safdar has taken it positively and vows to abide by party rules and regulations. Thankfully, we as a family keep politics and family matters separate," she posted.

"Maryam is sincere, controversy-free and a role model," says Majyd Aziz Balagamwala, a Pakistani industry senior in Sindh, who steered the Benzir Bhutto Shaheed Youth Development Programme that trained 200,000 marginalized youth.

"She deserves to be groomed for higher responsibilities."

(Rohit Bansal is chief executive and co-founder, India Strategy Group, Hammurabi and Solomon Consulting. Tweets @therohitbansal)


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