Nawaz Sharif has returned to Pakistan after a four-year exile, despite speculations about his return. The political circumstances, judicial setup, and conditions he would face were key factors. Sharif wanted to return after Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial’s retirement, who had a bias in favor of Imran Khan. His successor, Faez Isa, was seen as a safer bet for him. The conditions he had to accept included the military establishment’s dos and don’ts, as well as guarantees of personal safety and liberty.
The Pakistan Army has permitted Sharif’s return, despite his absconder status in Pakistani law. All doors, courtesies, and facilities were opened for him, and even hostile courts were ready to accommodate his return. Nawaz is now the Army’s chosen candidate to take on Imran Khan, making him the great comeback kid of Pakistani politics. As he bids to become Prime Minister for the fourth and possibly last time, he is once again the Army’s chosen one to take on Imran Khan.
Nawaz Sharif’s return to Pakistan’s politics marks a return to his 1980s political career, where he was the favorite child of the Pakistan Army. In the 1988 elections, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) formed a political alliance, Islami Jamhoori Itihad (IJI), to support Nawaz. As he bids to become Prime Minister, he is the Army’s chosen candidate to face Imran Khan. The political field is heavily favored by Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), with efforts made to prevent Khan from participating in the election.
However, Nawaz Sharif is coming back to a very different Pakistan than the one he left in 2019. The country is sharply polarized, economically bankrupt, and in the midst of a serious jihadist insurgency. The military establishment appears reconciled to seeing Nawaz Sharif back in the saddle, but they don’t trust him to not go rogue once again and try to put the army in its rightful place.
The Army will ensure that Nawaz gets a fourth term in Pakistan’s political landscape by forcing him to head a coalition government controlled by the GHQ in Rawalpindi. The PTI deserters, mostly the ‘electables’, have formed the Istehkam-e-Pakistan Party (IPP) in Punjab and PTI-Parliamentarians in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (K-P). These new parties, led by Jehangir Tareen and Pervez Khattak, are expected to fragment the verdict and hold the balance of power in the center, Punjab and K-P. Many in Pakistan believe that such a government will not be sustainable for long, as it will have to make tough decisions to restore the country. Legitimacy is an overrated virtue in Pakistani politics, where power brings its own legitimacy. In past elections, the victors have claimed legitimacy, and people have not revolted over their mandate being denied or stolen.
Nawaz Sharif’s political struggle is not about the legitimacy of the political process but about his and his party’s dwindling popularity. The party has a support base but is no longer the powerhouse it was five years ago. To have a moderately good chance of governing, Sharif needs to rebuild this power base. His recent rally in Lahore was impressive in terms of crowd turnout, but the crowd did not display the energy and enthusiasm seen in Imran Khan’s rallies. Nawaz tried to push all the right buttons, focusing on economic issues, promising to restore Pakistan’s economy, not being vengeful against political rivals, refraining from naming or holding accountable judges and generals who conspired against him, and trying to blame back-breaking inflation on Imran Khan. He also played victim and tugged at the heartstrings of the crowd over the travails his family and political associates had to undergo. However, the crowd’s response to Nawaz’s punchlines seemed contrived and not organic.
Nawaz Sharif’s speech lacks a solid plan for fixing the economy, with generalities about the party’s agenda and no specifics. The agenda includes slogans such as increasing exports, bringing about an IT revolution, cutting government expenses, reforming the taxation system, creating employment, and reforming the public sector. These promises have been made countless times before, with nothing new to offer. Nawaz’s model of development is to focus on big, fancy projects without fundamental reform.
From an Indian perspective, there is a body of opinion that with Nawaz at the helm, there could be some forward movement in bilateral relations. In his one-hour speech, Nawaz discussed foreign policy and relations with India, which has already been said by Army chiefs. He stated that Pakistan cannot afford to fight with its neighbours and still hopes to progress. Nawaz proposed a dignified Kashmir solution and an economic corridor linking Pakistan with Bangladesh through India. However, the train left Kashmir, and his hopes of reversing constitutional reforms in Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh seem to be in an alternate reality.
If Nawaz Sharif becomes president, there could be bilateral movement, as India would respond to any serious diplomatic outreach through established channels. Pakistan must be realistic and realize that what was on offer in the past is no longer on the table. If Sharif does reach out to India, how it will affect his position back home remains to be seen. His last stint was cut short to curb the Jihad factory in Pakistan and explore normalization of relations with India. This time around, the Army chief may switch between playing cleric-in-chief and Chief of Army Staff.