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July 13, 2018

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Nawaz Sharif’s three aborted, successful attempts to return in last 11 years

Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif waving to crowd upon their arrival from exile in November 2007. File photo

ISLAMABAD: This will be ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s third stormy return to Pakistan over the past eleven years at a time when the scheduled general elections are just twelve days away.

The political environment was strikingly different every time he fiercely came back or made a forceful effort to return home. Twice, the circumstances were not favourable for him at all while once his tormenter, Pervez Musharraf, had greatly weakened, lacking ability and capacity to impede his forcible homecoming.

On September 10, 2007 Nawaz Sharif had made the first abortive attempt to fly back into Pakistan but was hustled into a helicopter and later in a plane to transport him to Saudi Arabia in exile from the airport by the Musharraf regime. He was not allowed even to come out of the airport.

There were no huge crowds gathered outside the airport to welcome the former premier and no PML-N workers to protest the treatment meted out to him although clashes took place between his supporters and police in Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Attock.

However, there was a big drama at the airport. His deportation stoked public anger at Musharraf. Nawaz Sharif spent just four hours on Pakistani soil. Dozens of police commandos surrounded the plane that had brought him from London. Authorities had thwarted efforts by his supporters to reach the airport by sealing off roads, jamming mobile phone signals and arresting hundreds of people. A tense standoff started as Nawaz Sharif had refused to hand his passport to an immigration official who boarded the plane.

Before his arrest, the ex-premier had acknowledged that his return was a risky course, but his aim was to take Pakistan back to the rule of democracy “because unless we have this, we will continue to be in a state of mess, as we are today.”

When Nawaz Sharif returned for the second time two months later in November 2007, the ground realities had fundamentally changed in Pakistan. Benazir Bhutto had come back to a great chagrin of Musharraf. Her return had provided an opportunity to Saudi Arabia to justify that Nawaz Sharif now also deserves to go back to Pakistan. At the time, the fresh general elections were also to be held a few months later.

This time, the former prime minister had received a rousing welcome at the Lahore airport. Thousands of his supporters received him. They were thrilled to have him in their midst to run the election campaign.

Thousands of people had lined the road from the airport, cheering and beating drums to welcome Nawaz Sharif, who arrived with his wife Begum Kalsoom and Shahbaz Sharif on a special aircraft provided by Saudi Arabia. Then also, the PML-N workers had braved arrests and a severe crackdown by the government.

However, due to the imposition of emergency, Musharraf had become further cornered and beleaguered. For Nawaz Sharif, the political atmosphere had changed radically. On Friday, the ex-premier stages the third tumultuous comeback. The circumstances are entirely different from the previous two episodes. Now, he rushes back to go to jail after the conviction imposed on him and his daughter Maryam by an accountability court. He has chosen this hard path for political reasons.

The political conditions are now very difficult, rather complex and complicated, for Nawaz Sharif when he flies back into his hometown. Like before, a crackdown has been launched by police and other law enforcement agencies to detain hundreds of PML-N activists to frustrate their gathering at the airport to receive Nawaz Sharif. Dozens of shipping containers have been placed on key roads of Lahore to block the PML-N workers to make it to the airport.

As the ex-premier comes back, the PML-N’s contesting candidates are faced with an uncharitable situation that they hardly ever confronted in their careers. But despite all this, the hardcore party has stood ground. Because of the measures taken by authorities, it is impossible that the former premier will have even a passing contact with his welcomers.

When Nawaz Sharif had earlier twice returned, the regime of the day led by Musharraf had wanted him to not return. However, the present government is not opposed to his return, but is poised to take him straight to jail.

Although the PML-N’s candidates are under tremendous pressure for a variety of reasons and have not been able to freely run their election campaign as they had planned, they consider Nawaz Sharif’s presence in Pakistan as the biggest event that will give a fillip to their canvassing.

His return is the foremost occurrence of the ongoing election campaign. Had Nawaz Sharif stayed put in Britain in connection with the grave ailment of Begum Kalsoom, his party would have been comprehensively damaged in the forthcoming polls. The scenario will be different with his incarceration. For the PML-N, the expected high drama at the airport and the ex-prime minister’s bundling to the prison will be the paramount event in its otherwise lackluster campaign.

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