Three-time former PM, Nawaz Sharif is back in Pakistan, after four years of self-imposed exile in London. He was imprisoned for a seven-year term for not disclosing his income from a company owned by his son in Dec 2018. The charges were fake and the courts compelled to indict him. In 2017, Nawaz had resigned his premiership based on the Panama leaks expose.
In Nov 2019, he was permitted to proceed to London for medical treatment, from which he refused to return. There is no doubt that his ouster was the brainchild of General Bajwa and his head of ISI, General Faiz Hameed, facilitated by their then blue-eyed boy and PM, Imran Khan.
Nawaz has been ousted three times and was also forced into exile by Musharraf in Dec 2000. Not new to exiles and ousters, Nawaz is back seeking a fourth tenure as the PM. All legal road blocks were cleared enabling him to return without any hurdles. Since his return he has been granted bail in every pending case.
Nawaz’s return was facilitated by an unwritten agreement with the true leaders of Pakistan, the army. It is well known that it was Nawaz who selected General Asim Munir as the current army chief, as Munir and Imran were daggers drawn. Further, General Munir and the Saudi and UAE leaderships are on excellent terms and they can influence Munir’s decisions.
On his return home, Nawaz stopped in Riyadh and the UAE, meeting the leadership, confirming that they would continue to back him. In his first public address, Nawaz stated that he is not seeking revenge, hinting at ex-army chief General Bajwa, a change in perception possibly being part of his agreement with the Middle East leadership and the current army chief. Nawaz’s return also sends a signal that he is the next PM of Pakistan.
In these trying times Pakistan needs a leader who is acceptable to the Arab world and none is better than Nawaz. After all, it was the Suadi leadership which brokered his exile in 2000 as also facilitated his current return. Imran Khan, who accused Nawaz of corruption and abandoning Pakistan, is now behind bars and away from the public eye. It is unlikely he will be permitted to fight elections, providing free space to Nawaz. In Pakistan, the game of rotating chairs for the PMs post is an army pastime.
Nawaz is 73 years old and this is possibly his last stint as PM. The atmosphere within the nation has changed in the past few years. Pakistan’s economy is on a ventilator and internal divisions are evident. Hence, Nawaz in his first public address raised the topic of inflation and economic difficulties faced by the masses. He displayed his determination to address these issues on priority, if elected.
In addition, Imran had created a divide between the public and Rawalpindi, which continues to simmer, despite his arrest. A spark could reignite the fire. Nawaz mentioning no revenge was a signal of his willingness to accept the current hybrid environment.
The return of Nawaz, post clearing all hurdles, including him being declared a fugitive, implies that there is unlikely to be a level playing field for other political parties. The PDM (Pakistan Democratic Movement) of which his brother Shehbaz was the PM would now collapse. The army will ensure that no political entity can raise a voice against Nawaz.
Imran’s outburst against the army leadership, after being removed from power, enhanced anger against them as Imran was, apart from being considered a role model, also seen as honest, while corruption amongst the top military brass is rampant. Rawalpindi was at a loss on how to curb him till Imran decided to hit directly at army installations, post his incarceration on 09 May, thereby exposing himself. It was just the excuse Munir wanted.
Post the 09 May riots the army tightened its grip on the country. Rawalpindi broke Imran’s PTI in a similar manner in which it created it, by enforcing defections. The army chief has also ensured that the space available to any future PM is further constricted. In such a scenario, there is little which an elected leader, including someone of the stature and experience of Nawaz, can do. The political leadership is meant to face brickbats in case things do not materialize, while the army brass will take credit for any success.
Pressure from China to deliver, especially when it comes to security of its workers as also funding for the CPEC and increased attacks by terrorist groups in Pakistan’s western provinces are issues which are gaining prominence. The global geopolitical environment is equally challenging. The Russia-Ukraine war and the Israel-Hamas clash are unlikely to end soon. They will impact Pakistan in multiple ways. If the economy has to be improved, then Pak will need to reset ties with its neighbours.
Hence, Nawaz in his first address, raised improving ties with India. In a public rally Nawaz stated, ‘We can’t progress under conflict with the neighbours.’ He made no mention of conditions for talks as his predecessors had done. This could have possibly flowed from his interactions in Riyadh, where relations with India are on the rise. The question is whether the army will be willing to play ball and close down terror camps as also curtail activities of anti-India terrorist group leaders.
In fact, it is Pakistan which is facing economic and internal security problems while Kashmir is witnessing an economic and developmental boom. It is Pakistan which needs Indian support for its economic growth. Thus, Pak would have to meet Indian conditions, not the other way around. This can only happen if Rawalpindi plays ball.
Historically a couple of years after being in the chair, every Pak PM begins flexing his muscles, intending to display an independent streak, which causes heartburns in Rawalpindi. Thus, the army finds it essential to bring about a change. Hence, no Pak PM ever completes his full term. Nawaz has invariably been dethroned by the army chief he has personally nominated. What will the future hold for him is to be seen. The fact is that Pakistan needs him now.
The author is Major General (Retd)