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Return of the native

The former PM’s impending return to Pakistan in September will add to General Musharraf’s cup of woes, writes Afzal Khan.

world Updated: Sep 01, 2007 04:29 IST
Afzal Khan
Afzal Khan
Hindustan Times

Exiled Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has emerged as the main challenger to General Musharraf since the general toppled his government on October 12, 1999. His plan to end his seven-year exile, bolstered by a Supreme Court verdict, has deepened the crisis Musharraf is facing in his bid to get re-elected in uniform next month by incumbent assemblies.

Sharif had left the country in December 2000 for 10 years under an agreement brokered by present Saudi monarch Abdullah to buy remission from a life-term. A special court had charged him with ‘hijacking’ Musharraf’s plane on his return from Colombo that triggered the coup the same evening.

The political situation after the removal of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry by General Musharraf on March 9 this year emboldened Sharif to break his pledge and lead an oust-Musharraf campaign. With contender, Benazir Bhutto, aligned with Musharraf, Sharif is sniffing power if Musharraf is removed. Scion of a migrant Kashmiri business family from Amritsar, Nawaz Sharif, 48, found a mentor in military ruler General Ziaul Haq. After Zia’s death in 1988, Pakistan’s civil-military establishment picked up Sharif to lead a coalition of right-wing parties called Islami Jamhoori Ittehad to prevent Benazir Bhutto from coming to power.

Bhutto, however, returned as prime minister with less than a simple majority while Sharif retained his job in the country’s biggest province with enough muscle to destabilize her. For the next decade, which saw a two-party system in Pakistan, Nawaz and Benazir alternated twice as prime ministers.

Nawaz Sharif also grew from an amateurish figure to a defiant leader and freed himself from the shadow of the establishment in 1993 with his famous speech “I will not accept dictation”, when President Ghulam Ishaq Khan tried to browbeat him.

Although the army forced both him and Ghulan Ishaq out of power and Benazir returned as the PM, Nawaz bounced back with a landslide victory in 1997. He used his mandate to amend the Constitution and rein in army generals and judges of superior courts.

As Punjab chief minister, Sharif was known for his anti-India rhetoric. However, during a meeting with the then Indian high commissioner, Sharif spoke about fostering India-Pakistan friendship. When the envoy referred to his public outbursts, Sharif said: “That is politics. Let me replace Benazir and you’ll see how I build a whole new relationship between the two countries.” He stood by his words and signed the famous Lahore Declaration with A.B. Vajpayee in February 1999 pledging to initiate a new era of amity and friendship.

But General Musharraf’s misadventure in Kargil subverted the initiative. Sharif and Benazir ended their bitter hostility in 2000 by forging an anti-Musharraf alliance called Alliance for Restoration of Democracy (ARD). It hastened Musharraf’s decision to free Sharif with a promise that the exiled prime minister would not dabble in politics for the next 10 years. The general also vowed never to let Sharif and Benazir return.

For the next two years, Musharraf tried to dismantle Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and launched a new faction, PML-Q. In the 2002 election, the PML-N secured only 17 seats but Musharraf's surrogates were also unable to win a clear majority. The Muttahida Majlise Amal swept to power in the North West Frontier Province and shared government in Balochistan.

In a hung parliament, the General stitched together a coalition of disparate elements and fostered defections in the PPP to install a handpicked government. He tampered with the Constitution to not only indemnify his presidency till November 2007 but also tried to ensure another five-year term. Nawaz Sharif managed to leave last year for London where he gradually resumed political activities.

In May 2006, he signed an ambitious Charter of Democracy with Benazir pledging to end army’s role in politics. The document led Musharraf to make contacts with Benazir exploiting her obsession with corruption cases. Both secretly met in Abu Dhabi on January 24 to cut a deal under which Musharraf agreed to phase out cases against Benazir if she facilitated his election in September.

It was agreed that the PPP would dissociate from combined opposition’s strategy of en bloc resignations from assemblies to divest the election of credibility. She also stalled Sharif’s attempts to convene an all-parties’ conference (APC) in London to forge a combined opposition against Musharraf. But, the crisis in the wake of events of March 9 and the protests by lawyers, political parties and activists, have seriously eroded Musharraf’s absolute hold on power.

Sharif succeeded in convening the APC in London on July 7-8 followed by formation of an All Parties Democratic Movement (APDM) without the Pakistan People’s Party.

Musharraf and Benazir met in Abu Dhabi once more on July 27 to fine-tune their deal. But subsequent court judgments and rebellions within the PPP and Musharraf's coalition have jeopardised the deal.

The Supreme Court last week ruled that there was no provision in the Constitution to send any citizen in exile and directed the government not to stop Sharif’s return to Pakistan. The former PM is set to stage a comeback in the second week of September. His entry will add to an already volatile situation.

The general has dropped hints of imposing emergency or martial law if the situation gets out of hand. But analysts feel that he will be the first casualty of martial law that will be resisted by the people, a resurgent judiciary and remarkably alive media.

First Published: Sep 01, 2007 04:28 IST