IT IS still not official, but everybody knows Nawaz Sharif is set to become Pakistan's next prime minister. Foreign leaders have dialed in congratulations. Pakistan's bigwigs sniffing for jobs queue at his residence in Lahore. Three days ago, everyone you met on the street was planning to vote for Imran Khan. Today, all proudly explain how they voted for Sharif.
On Sunday, a street-sweeping van carefully cleaned the already pristine tarmac leading to Sharif's rural home, as curious local farmers stared. The next day Sharif, no doubt hoping to placate pesky demands for interviews, invited the foreign press corps to lunch. It was a brave decision.
His home in Raiwind reveals the ultimate in wealthy-politician chic. Even approaching Raiwind means driving through eucalyptus woodland, great clumps of bougainvillea and the odd banana tree. All is watched over by men with guns perched in little green watchtowers reminiscent of guards in a prison camp in a Second World War film.
For hacks who had spent previous days poking about slums and narrow alleys of Lahore, or sweltering in dusty queues of polling stations in Punjabi villages, it was a surprise to stroll past Sharif's private cricket field, his myriad aviaries with their assorted peacocks and the deer scampering around an enclosure, as well as rows of Victorian-style street lamps, scissor-trimmed lawns and flower beds that would put a Sussex seaside town to shame.
Inevitably, though, it is the lions that draw the eye. At least a dozen grace Raiwind. A pair of snarling metal monsters, black and towering, sit astride the municipal-sized roundabout beside Sharif's front door. A multicoloured marble one growls from the shrubbery, beside a brace of stuffed deer. Grinning porcelain tigers are either side of the door, and inside -- inevitably the scene of much posing and photography by the world's press corps -- are a pair of stuffed African lions, roaring at all visitors.
Sharif must be thanking Pakistan's Electoral Commission. His front yard might otherwise have been full of vehicles, reminiscent less of a zoo than a corner of Mississippi. The reason? Back in the 1990s he had asked the commission for a party symbol (carried on ballot papers to help illiterate voters) that represented modernity and his love of infrastructure, such as the motorway he built from Lahore to Islamabad. It is said he wanted the car. The commission, not particularly fond of Sharif, offered him an odd-looking tiger with a face like a cow instead. His supporters call it a lion, though the party also paraded a white tiger during this year's campaign. It reportedly died last week, of dehydration.
Inside, the enormous house is all towering chandeliers, gold-trimmed velvet curtains, wall-sized mirrors the better to reflect his model of Mecca, assorted swords on the walls, cut-glass vases and a box of chocolates the size, literally, of a coffin (presumably a post-election gift). The furniture would not have been out of place in pre-revolutionary France. The warmth of the welcome was royal, too.
The prime-minister-to-be (pale blue suit, black shoes with golden buckles, grey waistcoat) then put up with a horde of moderately rude guests who pointed smartphones at his slightly bewildered-looking face. Crammed in a large circle, the journalists threw him questions. On Imran Khan -- who did well in the election but claims it was rigged -- he suggested the ex-cricketer, still prone in a hospital bed, should behave with a "sportsman's spirit" and accept defeat. After all, said Sharif, he himself had put up with losing unfair elections in 2008, plus a coup a decade or so earlier, and you did not hear him moan (much) about them.
Asked about India, to which he is offering great branches of friendship, Sharif described a "long chat on the phone" with India's prime minister on Sunday. He wants Manmohan Singh to visit "soon," perhaps to see his birthplace, which happens to be on the Pakistani side of the border. It all sounds rather encouraging -- and it makes sense to plan quickly, since Singh, facing electoral troubles at home, may not be in office terribly long to make an official trip.
Would Sharif have any trouble with the army in the next five years? He scoffed at the notion, denying any difficulties in the past. That small matter of the army overthrowing his second administration was little more than a misunderstanding. "The coup was staged by one single person. The rest of the army resented Mr. Musharraf's position," suggested Sharif, though he did not explain why they went along with it for the best part of a decade.
On Afghanistan he spoke of "facilitating the Americans' withdrawal" and offering "full support" and referred to "our American friends." It was all rather different from his angry talk during the campaign of having no truck with "America's war." He even managed to twist questions on drones into baffling discussions of parliamentary committees, preferring not to offend anybody.
And with that, he led journalists to a table groaning with kebabs, assorted curries, piles of biryani and steaming bread. Having cunningly distracted his guests, he slipped through a large set of glass doors, away to a distant wing of his home, to prepare for government.