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Will Nawaz Sharif’s return today turnaround Pakistan’s fortunes?

Pakistan's former Prime Minister and PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif

Nawaz Sharif, former and most exiled prime minister of Pakistan, will fly home from London via Dubai today in a highly anticipated return. Sharif, who has been convicted of corruption, though in dubious circumstances, has been granted interim bail relief from the Islamabad high court clearing his path, first to mobilise masses in support of his party – Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) – and then, if he overcomes legal tangles, prepare for new stint as PM.

Nawaz’s return, which became almost clear after former PM Imran Khan and his party’s fortunes, tumbled after May 9 mayhem following the ex-PM’s conviction-arrest, is important as it marks a comeback of Pakistan’s most experienced top-notch leader who has commanded a large following at home as well as recognition at international stage.

Pakistan is slated to hold its general elections in late January.

Push to PML-N

Fortunes of Nawaz’s party dipped ever since Imran’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) snatched its popularity in Punjab and trounced it in 2018 polls, gaining more seats both in the Provincial Assembly and National Assembly. Even after the arrest of Imran and dismembering of PTI, PML-N has failed to win back public support.

In a survey, Imran’s PTI and late Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) were found to be the most popular parties in Punjab.

In recent weeks though, his brother Shehbaz Sharif, who was PM till the caretaker set-up took over, and his daughter Maryam Nawaz have been drumming up support for the party by organising rallies in cities and door-to-door campaigns in rural areas.

The PML-N has organised a grand welcome for Nawaz. According to reports, he will lead a rally from Lahore airport into the heart of the city. The PML-N has even released a song for Nawaz’s return rally.

Jamia Millia Islamia’s Professor Ajay Darshan Behera, expert observer of Pakistan affairs, says that Nawaz’s charisma will surely be a boost for his party. “Nawaz has no doubt been a charismatic leader. He is considered to be more people-friendly and a mass leader than his brother Shehbaz, whose reputation has been that of a deft administrator, but public-shy leader. Nawaz’s presence will enthuse renewed vigour in PML-N cares,” Prof Behera said.


Relations with India

Relations between India and Pakistan have been lying in limbo since August 5, 2019 when India wrote down Article 370 from Jammu and Kashmir. According to reports, Imran Khan staunchly opposed any “back-channel deal” that former Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa tried to strike to open “trade routes with India”. Nawaz’s PML-N was reportedly in its favour. During his tenures, Nawaz himself took lead to normalise relations with India, most famously with the launch of the Lahore Bus service and the Lahore Declaration with former Indian PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

“Nawaz is a businessman and understands the circumstances required to improve economic conditions. His recent successor Imran Khan failed on this front. Presently, Pakistan is undergoing an extremely bad phase. Its economy is showing no signs of recovery. Trade with India will only give it a needed fillip,” said Professor Behera. He added that if links between both Punjabs can be established, it will not only help generate people-to-people goodwill, besides bringing prosperity on both sides.


The “$400 billion” China and Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the most ambitious economic project of Pakistan ever, largely took off when Nawaz was prime minister in 2013-17. According to some commentaries appearing in Pakistan, Nawaz considers CPEC his pet project and will try to restart the stuck and hampered projects, if he has his way. The CPEC has suffered many setbacks in recent months. Several of its projects have either failed to materialise or they are proving to be too costly. Even the Chinese government is said to be peeved with “Pakistani lethargy”.


Legal Tangle

After the Panama papers expose, Nawaz was convicted for corruption cases and disqualified to hold any office in Pakistan. It was after Nawaz had fallen out with the powerful military that pulls almost all the strings in Pakistani power circles.

Nawaz as mentioned earlier is returning as an “absconder” out on protective bail till October 24 in two corruption cases. He is also facing an arrest warrant in the Toshakhana case – a similar case for which his bête noire Imran is languishing in jail.

Professor Behera says the real picture will be clear only after October 24.

But the party for Nawaz fans will begin on Saturday as their “Lion of Punjab” will descend at Lahore airport with Sahir Ali Bagga-sung song: “Mushkil Se Nikalo, Yeh Mulk Bacha Lo, Nawaz Sharif (Be Our Saviour, Save Our Country, Nawaz Sharif).”