Ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif, while addressing a charged crowd at Committee Chowk in Rawalpindi late Wednesday night, said that millions of people had voted to elect their leader but unfortunately a few had conspired to overthrow the democratic government.
"It happened with me for the third time. Is this not an insult to your vote?" Nawaz asked his gathered supporters.
“This gathering here serves as a referendum. The court of the people of Pakistan has given its verdict in my favour,” the PML-N leader claimed.
For the past 70 years, not a single prime minister has been allowed to complete his or her tenure, he observed.
“We have to make sure that the mandate of the people is respected in the future. We will do this in the interest of Pakistan,” he said, adding that until the mandate of people is not respected, Pakistan can not progress.
Commenting on his disqualification by the Supreme Court, Nawaz claimed that there was "not even a single allegation of corruption" against him, "so they [the apex court] de-seated me for not receiving a salary from my son".
The apex court had on July 28 ruled that because Nawaz Sharif had failed to disclose a receivable salary accruing from his employment in a Dubai-based company owned by his son in nomination papers for the last general election, he could not be deemed 'truthful' and was hence unfit to hold public office.
The court had additionally directed the opening of multiple corruption references against Nawaz, his family and other related individuals in various accountability courts in the country -- something the PML-N has chosen to gloss over in recent communications meant for public consumption.
"I don't expect the people to restore me, but I want you to support me for the betterment of the country," Nawaz told his followers.
At the end of his speech, he thanked the people for coming out in his support and announced that he will spend the night in Rawalpindi and leave for Lahore at around 11am on Thursday.
Sources in the PML-N claim that Nawaz Sharif will either stay at Punjab House or at the residence of Senator Chaudhary Tanvir.
Earlier in the day, the deposed premier had left Punjab House in Islamabad around noon, kicking off what is expected to be a long road-trip back to his hometown, Lahore, via the Grand Trunk (GT) Road.
Progress was painfully slow, however, and his convoy was held up at the Faizabad Interchange in Islamabad for hours after he reached there in the late afternoon.
In the evening, the caravan travelled only one kilometre on Murree road over three hours. At present, the rally is moving through the Shamsabad area.
Police officials had estimated in the evening that around 8,000 to 8,500 people and 900 to 950 vehicles — including government and private cars — were part of the procession. The numbers had reportedly grown by the evening.
However, sources in the PML-N said that the party failed to take the desired number of activists to the roads as party workers in the twin cities are not happy with the local leadership.
Meanwhile, tight security preparations have been made along GT Road, with the deployment of plain-clothed policemen as well as elite force commandos.
Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal, who was heading the motorcade on Wednesday to monitor security, told DawnNews that full safety has been ensured for the participants as well as PML-N leaders.
A mobile health unit has been prepped for the rally, which includes a team of doctors who will provide medical services to the participants, if needed.
“Politicians, including Nawaz Sharif, cannot stay away from the people,” he said from inside his car. “People are stopping Nawaz and welcoming him at every stop," he claimed. "I believe he will reach Lahore in 2-3 days."
Plans for the rally
Before his departure, Sharif held a meeting with his close confidantes, including Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar and party leader Abid Sher Ali at Punjab House. He later left from the back gate of the building, disappointing some of his supporters who had gathered to see him off.
"This is not a power show, but I have to complete a century — I'm not going anywhere," Nawaz said to reporters while kicking off the rally.
Initially, at least 5,000 people were expected to accompany the former premier throughout the journey, whereas thousands were expected to receive and see off their leader at the borders of their respective constituencies.
DawnNews, however, had reported that the camps set up for the rally had been nearly empty up until Sharif left the Punjab House.
It was reported that various PML-N MNAs had been instructed to remain in their constituencies and stations, and to bring out supporters to greet the rally when it arrives.
Given the elaborate plans made for the reception of the former prime minister on GT Road, it has been predicted that it may take four to six days to reach Lahore.
The procession is being carried out despite concerns for the former premier's safety within the PML-N leadership.
Earlier reports had suggested that his brother Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal and his predecessor Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan were among several close figures who had warned the ousted PM against proceeding to Lahore by road.
Nawaz, however, had remained adamant to embark on his journey, which he maintains is not "a protest" but "a journey back home" that he is undertaking because "risks need to be taken for the country".
A 'grand homecoming'
PML-N is banking on its workers to make the return of the former prime minister to his hometown a ‘historic’ occasion in order to gain some much-needed political mileage in the face of the challenges its government is facing.
To add salt to his wounds, Nawaz was asked to be removed as the chief of PML-N by the Election Commission of Pakistan on Tuesday. It is expected that his brother, Shahbaz, will take over the reins.
After the decision to not field Shahbaz for the prime minister's office, it is also expected that Nawaz will announce a candidate for NA-120, the seat left vacant by his ouster, upon his arrival in Lahore.
Earlier, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf and its chief Imran Khan had alleged that state machinery was being used in a bid to make Nawaz’s return to Lahore a ‘historic’ event.
“The Punjab government is using all its resources to make the show [Nawaz’s return to Lahore] a success,” PTI leader Abdul Aleem Khan had said, questioning why National Assembly Speaker Ayaz Sadiq was overseeing the arrangements regarding Nawaz’s return to Lahore.
On Tuesday, Awami Muslim League (AML) chief Sheikh Rashid had alleged that Nawaz Sharif's GT Road procession was an attempt by the ousted prime minister to seek a National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) from the army.
The NRO was a controversial ordinance promulgated by former president Pervez Musharraf which granted amnesty to politicians, political workers and bureaucrats accused of corruption, embezzlement, money laundering, murder and terrorism.
"Whoever gives Nawaz Sharif a way out, whoever lets him off easy, whoever prevents him from being presented to institutions, the entire nation will stand before him," Rashid had thundered at a rally in Lahore.
Prominent cleric and Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) chief Tahirul Qadri, addressing the same gathering after his return to Lahore earlier that day, had heavily criticised the Sharif family, accusing them of undermining democracy.
He said that it could not be considered contrary to democratic practices that Nawaz had been disqualified by the SC.
"Who are you protesting against?" Qadri had asked, adding that the former premier had been let off easy as he was not sent to jail.
The PAT leader had also asked his party workers to "welcome" Nawaz upon his cavalcade's arrival at Lahore.
With additional reporting by Iftikhar Shirazi, Fahad Chaudhry, Arif Malik, Mubashir Zaidi, Saifullah Cheema, Nadir Guramani, Sadia Rafay, Inamullah Khattak, Syed Sammer Abbas and Amir Kayani.