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Old Sharif in new avatar

Nawaz Sharif, the 73-year-old former Prime Minister of Pakistan, has returned to Pakistan, four years after he fled from the country when the courts gave him six weeks’ bail and allowed him to go seek medical treatment in London. Sharif, then convicted for corruption and banned for life from politics, had fallen in 2019 because he had fallen out with the Generals of the Pakistan Army, the country’s kingmakers, who had decided that he had to go and Imran Khan had to rise.

It has happened to Sharif thrice – he was Prime Minister thrice, and fell each time the Army decided to pull the rug from under his feet. He is now back to get himself elected a fourth time. And this time, he has the approval of the Generals, who decided sometime two years ago or so that they had had enough with Imran Khan. Now, Imran Khan is in jail, and Sharif is the Army’s new ‘blue-eyed boy’. Not surprisingly, the courts, too, have granted him bail in all cases and allowed him to appeal against his conviction in two cases.

Sharif, the Army, and the courts have to work at a furious pace to ensure that the lifetime political ban on him is removed quickly to enable him to contest elections. Pakistan is set to go to general elections in January.

By all indications, this miracle will be accomplished – because the Army wants it so. Upon his return, Sharif was given “VVIP treatment”, allowed to address a massive rally and roll out his plans for the future of a failed State that he had fled four years ago.

Nothing new ever seems to happen in Pakistan. Be it the country being in economic doldrums, or the army-politician-clergy power struggles, or its flip-flop in its relationship with India, it’s all a movie we have seen again and again.

For Sharif himself, this is the second return of the ‘prodigal son’. It seems the Army, which in 1999, in the wake of Pakistan’s Kargil misadventure, had decided it had no use for a civilian leader and got rid of him so that Gen Musharraf could take over as dictator, needs a civilian face this time that it can send around the world with a begging bowl to bail the country out its economic straits. The situation must be pretty desperate.

Of course, the Army also needs Sharif because he’s possibly the only Pakistani politician who has any chance of beating Imran Khan at the hustings. Public sympathy and the deal with the Army should help see him through and he, at this stage, has little to worry as far as becoming PM is concerned. In any case, he seems to be working on a limited agenda: One, to facilitate his daughter Maryam’s political future, putting her on the path to become the country’s second woman PM (after Benazir Bhutto; and two, to keep the Army in good humour, if necessary by stirring up the Kashmir pot, although the businessman in Sharif is said to prefer to settle Pakistan’s Kashmir issue with India and build a positive relationship with Delhi.

As luck would have it, at his first major public address upon his return to Pakistan, he had to make a last-minute addition to his script – to play to the “Islamic solidarity”, given the Israel-Palestine situation. But at the Minar-e-Pakistan rally, amidst the Palestine and POK flags, what should have perked up Delhi’s ears is that Sharif raised the Kashmir issue, only to promise to take it up with India for a “negotiated settlement”. The ‘Track 2’ lot in India is already salivating at the prospect of such a settlement, and peace.

Nawaz Sharif will do well to spend some time reading newspapers which he might have missed during his exile in London when India abrogated Article 370 and Article 35A in J&K. He, as well as his Army bosses in Rawalpindi, should know that in Delhi’s view, the only pending issues in J&K are for Pakistan to vacate POK, as the Indian parliament’s unanimous resolution in 1994 declared, and to end cross-border terrorism.

Delhi should leave Sharif under no illusion that it will gloss over either the Pakistan Army’s support to anti-India terrorists nor its seeking to arm itself to the teeth against India with China’s help. Nor should Sharif himself gloss over the generous tipping of the Generals by China for compromising Pakistan’s sovereignty.

(Published 28 October 2023, 19:20 IST)

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