My last vision of Mian Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan was inside a Karachi courtroom in April 2000 when Judge Rehmat Hussain Jaffri sentenced him to 25 years in prison for hijacking and terrorism. In a few months, my term as a correspondent in Pakistan ended and I left the country.
With some of Mr. Sharif’s family members sobbing in court, I remember it as a sombre scene. Days before the verdict, like many other foreign correspondents, I feared that the military regime of General Pervez Musharraf may have a worse fate than a long jail sentence in mind for him.
Luckily, those fears proved to be unfounded and after some help from the Saudi Arabian government, Mr. Sharif flew out of the country as part of a “deal” with the military authorities.
Six years later, in 2006, I ran into Pakistan’s prime minister-in-waiting in a Paris hotel lobby. Initially, I wasn’t quite sure whether it was Mr. Sharif or not, but soon it became clear that it was him.
Mr. Sharif now had a full crop of hair, was relaxed and confident as he chatted with me and a few other reporters travelling with Indian Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who encountered each other in the hotel lift.
During our conversation, he wanted to know what had come out from India’s interactions with General Pervez Musharraf, who is now, ironically, jailed in his own house outside Islamabad as Mr. Sharif prepares to take power as Pakistan’s Prime Minister for the third time.
The last time I met Mr. Sharif in person was five years ago, in his sprawling house in Raiwind. He was cool, composed and relaxed. It was as if the man knew he was going to return to power. But he had to be patient.
About the nuclear tests of 1998, he told me on their tenth anniversary: “The credit for our detonations goes to India. India actually made Pakistan a nuclear power. It turned Pakistan nuclear. Both the blame and the credit goes to India (laughs).”
By any yardstick, Mr. Sharif’s life-story would be classified as a fairytale.
Twice prime minister, then imprisoned, exiled, then returned to the country and now won his third election and en route to become Prime Minister again. No small achievement. It’s going to be a challenging job for Mian Sahab.
The issues are many and pressing. Unlike his previous tenures, an unrelenting media gaze, especially from Pakistan’s myriad television channels, is going to remain on Mr. Sharif and the decisions he takes and doesn’t take.
Equally, the judiciary that feels empowered and invigorated will keep the government on a short leash. The untrammelled power he sought to enjoy on previous occasions may just prove to be out of reach.
The Army, with which Mr. Sharif has had a tough time during his previous two tenures, is likely to get a new chief later this year. Just as the Army will have to be careful in dealing with the new Prime Minister, Mr. Sharif will have to reciprocate when it comes to working with the Army.
The prime minister-to-be will also have to deal with Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party and the fact that he’s been responsible for mobilising categories of Pakistanis, who previously felt that the act of voting would change nothing in their country.
The 60 per cent of the 85-million voters who turned out on May 11, braving bullets and bombs from the Taliban, have reposed their faith in the democratic process. It’s a feat that must be applauded.
Mr. Sharif will be conscious of his Punjab-heavy mandate and required to act like an all-province leader if he is to carry credibility in other parts of the country.
In the past, being boss-at-any-cost has proved to be Mian Sahab’s undoing. One can only hope and pray that things will be different this time round.
When it comes to India, the issues are framed. Mr. Sharif has always spoken of wanting good relations with India. His comments about picking up from the Lahore Declaration are welcome. Let’s hope India and Pakistan can find the traction to push their ties ahead.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been warm in his message of congratulations to Mr. Sharif:
This historic election is also significant victory for democracy in Pakistan. The people of India have watched with admiration the people of Pakistan braving violence and strife and turning out in large numbers to affirm their democratic rights. The Pakistani people and the political parties in Pakistan deserve all credit for strengthening the framework of democracy in their country by participating in these elections despite facing enormous challenges.
The people of India also welcome your publicly articulated commitment to a relationship between India and Pakistan that is defined by peace, friendship and cooperation. I look forward to working with you and your government to chart a new course and pursue a new destiny in the relations between our countries. I would also like to extend an invitation to you to visit India at a mutually convenient time.
In Pakistan, in India, and in India-Pakistan, let’s pray our leaders can move from rhetoric to delivery.