| Clinton at a tsunami-hit fishing village in Thailand on Saturday. (Reuters)
Lahore, Feb. 19: An aptly timed gesture can save life and win friends.
This is what ousted Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif realised when his life was not only spared by General Pervez Musharraf after the military coup but his entire family was provided a safe passage to Saudi Arabia.
January 1998 was perhaps the lowest point of former US President Bill Clinton's life and career. The Monica Lewinsky scandal hogged prime media space and world leaders were chary of being seen with Clinton. But not Sharif.
According to one of his close friends and political associates, at the height of the Lewinsky controversy, Sharif, being the large-hearted Punjabi that he is, decided to send a letter of support to Clinton.
He is believed to have sympathised with Clinton and hoped that the bad patch he was going through would also pass. The Pakistan Prime Minister found out how deeply his letter had touched Clinton a month later when he went to attend Jordan's King Hussain's funeral on February 8, 1999.
His friend and colleague recounted: 'Mian Saa'b (Sharif) was standing on the stairs of a palace in Amman. The top button of his achkan needed some fixing. His ADC was trying to fix it when suddenly someone came from behind and hugged Mian Saa'b. It was Bill Clinton.'
The unusual closeness that developed between them was to have dramatic consequences for Pakistan's future and Sharif's.
By July 1999, Sharif's closeness to Clinton would be used by the army brass to get him to negotiate with India over Kargil. After the coup, Sharif's life was spared; and the US facilitated a sanctuary for him in Saudi Arabia.
When dead bodies in unusual numbers started coming back from Kargil, Sharif and his cabinet colleagues realised that something was seriously wrong. According to Sharif's friend and colleague, the director-general of military operations was summoned by the equivalent of India's Cabinet Committee on Security.
By the end of June, the Pakistani army, he said, had decided that it was not only not going to win the Kargil conflict but that it had to somehow extricate itself from the mess. Sharif's closeness to Clinton was then sought to be used by the army's top brass.
'They told Nawaz Sharif in the first couple of days of July 1999 that they had a window of four days within which to cut a deal with India or face adverse consequences. It was they who pushed him to go to Washington DC and appeal to Clinton to facilitate a deal. This is something that Nawaz Sharif has also confirmed in his interviews from Saudi Arabia,' his friend recalled.
The relationship with Clinton came in handy. Sharif was en route to Washington DC. He was scheduled to meet Clinton on July 4 ' the US Independence Day, a crowded day in any American President's diary.
Sharif was flying Pakistan International Airways that went via Ireland. In Ireland, while taking off, one of the engines stalled due to high cross-winds. The plane was delayed by two hours. Yet, President Clinton accommodated his friend Sharif, even though he was to give him a talking to, by rescheduling his appointments.
The second payback came when Sharif was arrested and jailed by Musharraf. 'Musharraf was in no position to hang Mian Saa'b as Zia-ul-Haq was when he sealed the fate of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. But even then, Clinton conveyed to Islamabad that he did not want the ousted Prime Minister to be harmed in any way,' Sharif's friend claimed.
Jail life did not suit Sharif, although his friends believe that he should have preferred to stay imprisoned in Pakistan than to accept exile. 'The Americans then used the foreign minister of Qatar to facilitate a deal which allowed a safe passage to the Sharif clan to Jeddah. Clinton clearly proved to be good friend,' Sharif's associate said.
Even now, he claimed, Clinton often calls up Sharif in Jeddah.