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Nawaz Sharif Returns to Pakistan: The Army Playing a Safe Bet?

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Nawaz Sharif Returns to Pakistan: The Army Playing a Safe Bet?

The army seems to have given a green signal to Nawaz Sharif to become the face of forthcoming general elections in Pakistan.

Nawaz Sharif Returns to Pakistan: The Army Playing a Safe Bet?

Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif waves to his supporters during a welcoming rally in Lahore, Pakistan, Oct. 21, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary

Nawaz Sharif – a three-time prime minister and a proclaimed offender in an ongoing corruption case – is back in Pakistan following four years of self-imposed exile in London. There has been a mixed reaction to his arrival, but that’s a bet the Pakistani army seems to be taking after their previous golden child, Imran Khan, failed the establishment. 

The chartered flight carrying Nawaz Sharif from Dubai was named “Umeed-e-Pakistan,” a phrase translated as Hope of Pakistan. Whether Sharif carries the baton of hope or not, the generals of the Pakistani army and his loyalists in the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) are hoping for a return to old-style politics. 

For Pakistan, almost all political experiments with individuals and campaigns like “Naya Pakistan” (New Pakistan) have miserably failed. Naya Pakistan became an anthem under Imran Khan – a cricketer-turned-politician who had (and still has) mass support among the youth. But Khan fell out with the generals of the Pakistani Army and was removed from office in a no-confidence vote in April 2022. He is now lodged in Adiala jail after a corruption conviction while also awaiting trial on charges of leaking state secrets.

The army is closing the doors on Khan. With that particular experiment having gone awry, the military is undoubtedly looking to Nawaz Sharif for the comfort of a familiar face in the upcoming general elections. It was Sharif’s PML-N, led by his brother, Shehbaz Sharif, that took over the reins of power following Khan’s ouster.

But amid looming inflation, an economic meltdown, unemployment, and poverty, if the army wants Nawaz Sharif back in the hot seat, there is a long way to go. First, Sharif will have to deal with his legal, political, and personal battles. 

Soon after landing in Islamabad, Sharif headed to his home turf, Lahore, where a cheerful family and his party members welcomed him with teary eyes. In his first public address in the last six years – after two years in jail and four years of self-exile – Sharif delivered almost an hour-long emotional speech touching upon the existing crisis of economic turmoil, unemployment, poverty, and political instability. 

He began with a sly dig at Imran Khan for flaunting his religiosity in public when he meant none of it. While Sharif had promised not to refer to Khan directly, he did make implicit references to his rival throughout the speech. Then Sharif apologized by saying he practices gentlemen’s politics, but Khan did not let Sharif meet his family while the latter was in prison. 

Sharif has promised not to seek revenge against the people who lodged him in jail. But there are fewer buyers to this promise, considering the army dethroned him, and later, Khan sought to finish off the Sharif dynasty. The PML-N cannot help but blame Khan for jailing Nawaz Sharif, as well as targeting his daughter Maryam, his brother and ex-Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, and his party members.  

Upon his return, Nawaz Sharif saw an excellent public turnout from across Pakistan, whom he reminded of the developments he achieved in his three terms in office, even if that started in the 1990s. And none could have been better than reminding the public of Pakistan’s nuclear tests in 1998 during his premiership, which put Pakistan on the world map. He took the credit for declining $5 billion that then-U.S. President Bill Clinton offered if Sharif would scrap the nuclear tests. Sharif highlighted his determination to press on with the nuclear tests to project his wishes to do more for the Pakistani awam (public).

Calling himself a “son of the soil,” Sharif promised to bring back Pakistan’s lost glory. He made a comparison to Bangladesh, erstwhile East Pakistan, which has done wonders in the economic sphere since its independence, and today boasts a per capita income close to $2,600 compared to Pakistan’s $1,500. 

In one of his recent conversations at his London house, Sharif had also referred to India’s soft landing on the moon as a point of comparison. While India, Pakistan’s archrival, notched a global first by landing on the Lunar South Pole, Pakistan struggled with unemployment, inflation, and poverty. 

What Sharif thinks about the country’s economic progress is less critical, however. The army sets priorities for the country, and it must be convinced to buy into any civilian political agenda. But if the Pakistani army charts the future course, it seems to be betting on Nawaz Sharif. 

It will be interesting to see how the bonhomie between the army and Sharif plays out. In all his previous stints as prime minister, Sharif has never completed a full term in office. Each time, he was removed at the behest of the army, precisely for getting out of step with the military – including by initiating a rapprochement with India.  

If Sharif had learnt his lessons, he would not touch any sensitivities of the military. Sharif avoided making any reference to the army in his long speech, nor did he touch on the Afghan issue, the Arab world, Russia, or China, which are the sole domains of the army.  

His reference to resolving the Kashmir issue was indeed a surprise. Still, as the country is engulfed in an election mood, Kashmir is a safe choice for Sharif to make a case for his return to Pakistani politics. 

However, by reinvigorating his enthusiasm to resolve the Kashmir issue, Sharif has taken a political risk. Calls to normalize ties with India have always been a sensitive issue for the Pakistani army, which bases its strength on keeping the tensions simmering. 

Meanwhile, India has made its case clear that talks with Pakistan can happen only after Pakistan stops exporting cross-border terror. 

During his past three tenures, Sharif tried to normalize ties with India. Between 1990-1999, Sharif put some energy into talking to India by welcoming the then-Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, but then the Kargil War followed in 1999, and Sharif’s efforts came to naught. 

In 2014, Sharif accepted India’s invitation and was present at the oath-taking ceremony of the newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In 2015, Modi’s small stopover in Lahore was seen as a positive sign, but thanks to the army and the entire deep state in Pakistan, such initiatives did not last long. 

In his latest speech, Sharif also promised to make Pakistan an Asian Tiger – a term used in the 1990s to symbolize the economic progress of countries like Bangladesh. While Bangladesh flourished, Pakistan was always caught in the politics of mosques and the military. Sharif once hoped that India would have allowed an economic corridor to connect erstwhile East Pakistan to West Pakistan.

It is interesting to see how his idea of a peaceful and friendly neighborhood differs from Imran Khan’s politics. Khan’s ministers threatened India with a Ghazwa-e-Hind (a holy war against India). 

In the last leg of his speech, Sharif demanded justice for the people of Palestine, but without criticizing or referring to Israel. Despite public sentiments overwhelmingly siding with Palestine, Pakistan has mulled normalizing relations with Israel over the years, knowing that they could use technology from Israel. 

With Khan in jail and Sharif back, the army seems to have given a green signal to Sharif to become the face of forthcoming general elections in Pakistan. The army will be hoping to find an old bastion of Pakistani politics who can win the upcoming election on his own, with the army doing micro-management rather than rigging elections outright – like in the 2018 general elections that installed Imran Khan.