ISLAMABAD - At a time when military has launched one of its most ambitious offensives against militants, the news about differences between prime minister Nawaz Sharif and interior minister Ch Nisar Ali Khan bubbled to surface and dominated major news headlines. The public spectacle of differences within the top clique of the ruling party and the melodramatic reconciliation between the two leaders left many wondering about the indispensability of the interior minister.
Nisar is, after all, an eccentric and enigmatic politician, who is at odds with a powerful faction within the ruling party. Some party insiders say the cracks between the premier and interior minister still exist but such is the pivotal role of the Chaudhry from Chakri that the Sharif brothers were compelled into making an apparent effort to redress his grievances.
After Nisar sidelined himself from parliamentary proceedings in last couple of weeks, over 60 party lawmakers visited him in an expression of solidarity and support. The large number of party stalwarts sympathetic and supportive of the interior minister forced the hand of the prime minister into meeting Nisar earlier than he had planned.
“Chaudhry Nisar can make things difficult for PML-N if he is pushed to the wall,” said a PML-N leader, who was awarded party ticket on Nisar’s recommendation.
Often dubbed arrogant and aloof, Nisar has a peculiar way of dealing with party leadership and his own constituents in Rawalpindi division. Few can claim to have direct access to Nisar and even fewer can claim to have the ability to meet him at short notice.
PML-N leaders have divergent views about Nisar. Some say he keeps his cards very close to the chest and some believe he is a down to earth man. “He is quite difficult to understand,” said a party official. “He relies on very few people and is quite secretive.”
The 60-year old politician, unlike others, does not hold direct meetings with his constituents. Instead, Nisar wields his influence through senior police officers, district managers and government officials.
Nisar’s constituency, NA-52, is infested with infrastructural problems. Health facilities are lacking. Few schools exist and only a couple of degree colleges cater to the needs of more than half a million population.
But Nisar ensured that during financial year 2010-2011, Nisar devoted his entire MNA grant to construct a road from Rawalpindi district courts to the Army House, an area that lies within the cantonment limits where uplift work is financed by federal government through defence ministry.
Since Nisar avoids public interaction, he has established a cell in the interior ministry where people from his constituency and Rawalpindi administration officials drop written requests that are later forwarded to the minister for further action.
“It is like a post office,” said a Rawalpindi based government official. “One cannot dream of having a face to face meeting with Chaudhry Nisar. For us, he is like the prime minister.” The impression is not just limited to people from Nisar’s hometown.
For a long time, Nisar did enjoy the status of ‘de-facto’ prime minister. In the first two tenures of Nawaz Sharif, Nisar came so close to the ruling family that he played an overarching role within the party and national level politics. Through his family connections, Nisar also presented himself as the person who communicated and interacted with the military establishment.
After 2008 elections, Nisar became the leader of the opposition, kept the party intact, despite pressures from the military regime, and ran the affairs of the party by keeping a tight leash on local leadership. But soon the fissures started appearing. The ego and ambition of Nisar started to clash with the ego and ambitions of many others.
Party insiders say in the last general elections, Nisar propagated the impression that he would be installed as the chief minister of Punjab; Nisar’s contesting from two national and provincial assemblies further added fuel to the speculation. His opponents within the party made their own counter-move. Khawaja Muhammad Asif stepped up to thwart his ambitions and contested from both national and provincial seats.
The top PML-N leadership, comprising of Lahori and Kashmiri origins, saw Nisar, leading the Rajput faction within the party, as a threat and started a whisper campaign against him. The fact that most of Nisar’s handpicked candidates showed a dismal result in 2013 general elections further dented his position and ambitions.
Still, Nisar thought that his position was infallible within the party. However, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was fast losing interest in the way Nisar was operating, ruling party insiders say. As Sharif was surrounded more and more by the likes of Ishaq Dar, Khawaja Asif and Khawaja Saad Rafique, Nisar felt his currency was falling.
Policy differences over granting amnesty to former military ruler Pervez Musharraf and peace talks with Taliban further widened the chasm between the interior minister and the prime minister. The situation came to such a brink that the prime minister could not take time out to meet his interior minister in Islamabad for weeks as Nisar started skipping parliamentary proceedings.
Some party leaders say that problems persist even though Sharif and Nisar, after the much trumpeted Raiwind meeting, attempted to downplay continuing differences. “The irritants and reasons behind the row are very much in place,” said a party insider. “And, prime minister is neither in a position nor in a mood to rectify things.”