There was a time in the life of Nawaz Sharif when history would have judged him as one rich Pakistani who had two disastrous stints as Prime Minister.
But seven years since his cowardly exit to Jeddah, he might have regained popular esteem by defying the very military ruler who willed his humiliating freedom from jail in 2000.
The former premier is back to the Saudi capital where he was so ignominiously transported half-a-dozen winters ago.
His deportation amid high drama at Islamabad on Monday blew up the many myths the Pervez Musharraf regime wove about its commitment to democracy and the rule of law.
Sharif flew from London on the strength of a recent Supreme Court order upholding his right to return and stay in Pakistan. The face off that saw the PML leader bundled off to Jeddah was no ordinary contempt of the Apex judiciary’s diktat. It marked a breakdown of the Constitutional machinery.
“The contemnor here isn’t an individual. It’s the entire executive,” remarked a senior Pakistani journalist. He agreed the turn of events could antagonise the judiciary, fuel the lawyers’ stir against Musharraf and make Benazir Bhutto a political pariah if she continues to be in the General’s company or that of his emissaries seeking a power-sharing arrangement.
By setting up a negotiating table with the PPP leader, Musharraf might have succeeded in showing the Opposition as a house divided. But his bid to woo Benazir while spurning Sharif could place the PML leader on the high pedestal that once belonged to the Daughter of the East.
In recent years, in fact, Sharif and Benazir have exchanged roles--- the former now a rebel with a cause and the latter resembling his erstwhile avtaar, a civil-military prop used to keep genuine democracy at bay or in some kind of a check.
The process began in 1993, when ZAB’s daughter wrested an election from the military bosses after the Supreme Court overturned Sharif’s dismissal by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and restored him as PM. That was also the time the PML leader went on national TV to declare that as PM, he wouldn’t sign on dotted lines or take dictation. “I have now a constituency to keep,” he had told this writer on being asked why he couldn’t ward off polls by patching up with Ghulam Ishaq, the most potent symbol then of the civil-military establishment.
On accounting for the much-speculated US pressure, observers of the Pakistan political scene view Musharraf’s efforts for an entente with Benazir as "birds of the same feather flocking together".
"The General’s rash, the PPP czarina naïve," remarked a Pakistani politician. Sharif too is given to grandstanding - that saw him cross swords with three successive army chiefs --- but has the political savvy the other two lack.
For instance, Musharraf is talking to Benazir while taking for granted the pro-Army PML (Q) led by Shujaat Hussain. But once he sews up a pact with the PPP, there is no surety of the Q League voting to renew his presidency in the existing assemblies.
From Benazir’s standpoint, ordinary Pakistanis might not eventually perceive her as an alternative to Musharraf or his cohorts. Her equation with the military ruler is comparable with the BJP’s with Mulayam Singh Yadav before the recent elections in Uttar Pradesh. This obviously leaves a huge opening for Sharif, a la Mayawati, in the event of free and fair polls.
For the present, the PML leader is back in the protective hospitality (or is it custody?) of the Saudi King. The next twist to the drama may come from the hidden US hand, the Army leadership, the judiciary or Benazir, who also has been threatening to return home: Towards what end? Nobody knows. Not yet.
As an ethnic Kashmiri settled in Punjab, Sharif is twice more qualified to rule his country than a Sindhi (Benazir) or a Mohajir (General Musharraf). What goes against this Punjabi mascot is his forced absenteeism from Pakistan, troublesome relations with the Army leadership and America’s stakes in Musharraf’s survival.