Most of the country’s prime ministers, including Sharif, a textile magnate who first served as prime minister from 1990 to 1993, and the late Benazir Bhutto, who held the post twice, have been part of that wealthy class.
And the prime minister’s house played a small role in both politicians’ fall from power.
In her second term, from 1993 to 1996, Bhutto came under heavy criticism after her husband, Asif Ali Zardari — now the country’s outgoing president — spent millions of dollars and leveled acres of trees near the residence to install a polo field. The controversy fed into broader corruption allegations against the family, which contributed to Bhutto’s 1996 ousting.
When Sharif succeeded Bhutto, he, too, battled critics over his use of the house. Abida Hussain, who served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States from 1991 to 1993, recalled that Sharif relied on top designers to furnish the residence.
“He was not like India, where maintaining a modest lifestyle for top leaders flowed from the Gandhi era,” said Hussain, noting that Sharif was born into wealth and raised in lavish mansions. “We veered more and more toward the Arabs, the Gulf Arabs, whose leaders were extremely elaborate. We looked away from the Indian model of simplicity.”
Sharif was ousted by then-army chief Pervez Musharraf in a coup in 1999, accused of corruption and then exiled to Saudi Arabia until 2007.
As he sought to return to power in national elections this spring, Sharif faced the energetic campaign of former cricket star Imran Khan. Although Khan also is wealthy, he rallied younger voters with a populist message that railed against government excess, and he pledged not to reside in the prime minister’s house.
Several observers said Sharif’s subsequent decision not to return to the official residence reflected concern that Khan, whose Movement for Justice party finished a distant second in the May 11 elections, could again pose a threat if Sharif did not scale back his lifestyle or move swiftly to address the country’s economic woes.
Others suspect that Sharif had more personal reasons. When he was ousted by Musharraf, the army surrounded the residence, dragged Sharif out and arrested him in the driveway.
“He has nightmarish memories of that house,” said Muhammad Akram Shaheedi, a former federal information officer. “Those memories haunted him. . . . He was humiliated to the core.”
Whatever the motives, within days of Sharif’s announcement, Pakistani security officials were expressing concern through the news media over his plans to reside in the more modest Punjab House, built for officials from the province of the same name.
Not only is it more accessible to the public — and vulnerable to rocket attacks from the surrounding hills — it also does not contain the “hot phones” that the prime minister needs to quickly communicate with military chiefs, they said.
So after Sharif was sworn in Wednesday, he and his family moved into the prime minister’s house, where, presumably, they will remain.