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LAHORE: Pakistan Muslim League insiders say there is a solid reason why ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif ignored advice from his daughter Maryam Nawaz and returned to Pakistan to face corruption and money laundering cases against him in the accountability court: to stop the party birds from flying over to the ‘opposite’ camp.

It may be recalled that Ms Nawaz’s message to her father through Twitter was that he “must not be a part of political and personal victimisation in the garb of accountability”. This was quickly and predictably decoded by media and it was concluded that the Sharifs would stay away from court proceedings altogether.

Then last week, in a dramatic shift, Mr Sharif held a series of meetings with Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, Foreign Minister Khwaja Asif, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and his legal team. The outcome of the meetings was that the disqualified prime minister was returning home, post haste, on someone’s suggestion or of his own accord, was anybody’s guess. It is likely that Mr Sharif took the decision himself based on the options before him that could give him some hope of surviving the current turmoil politically.

In background talks with Dawn on Monday, a PML-N insider said many — if not most — of his trusted lieutenants wanted him to skip the accountability proceedings since he had cast so much doubt about the trial. “Two issues were discussed at length in the back-to-back huddles in London before his departure for Islamabad on Monday. One, the point about him not attending court and staying put in London and dodging whatever politics was possible from there. Two, the option of going back to Pakistan, facing cases and not leaving the space open to the ‘establishment’ to manoeuvre things, complicating it all for the Sharifs,” the party source said.

Mr Sharif, he said, had returned with ‘certain targets’ in mind. “Keeping the party intact in the face of tough times ahead is his first objective. Nawaz Sharif was receiving reports from different sources in the country that several of his party men were in contact with the establishment because of uncertain situation. He wanted to give them the message that he was firmly around and they had no business harbouring thoughts about switching loyalties,” he said.

The source, a senior PML-N politician close to Mr Sharif, said the ousted prime minister would not stop challenging those ‘conspiring against him’ in the manner he had been doing during his homecoming march from Islamabad to Lahore after he was disqualified by the Supreme Court in the Panama Papers case. “He is ready to go to jail,” the source said.

He said the legal minds present in the London meeting had warned Mr Sharif it could be difficult for him if he skipped accountability court proceedings for an indefinite period. “The court may issue arrest warrants and put his name on the Exit Control List (ECL),” the PML-N insider said, not discounting the political mileage his leader could draw by bravely preferring to come back home over a timid London retreat.

The background chat with PML-N cadres also brought to light a view ascribed, most importantly, to Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif which advocated that Mr Sharif put a ‘full stop’ to confrontation as it will eventually result in loss of the Sharifs. “Mr Shahbaz told his elder brother in London that I would stand by you whatever decision you took... but my suggestion is confrontation should be the last option,” another PML-N leader, who hails from central Punjab, told Dawn. “Mr Sharif responded to the idea by saying he would review his position if and when he saw a positive signal.”

A close Nawaz aide told Dawn that returning to Pakistan was “Mian Sahib’s own decision”. “If you noticed speeches of Nawaz Sharif since his ouster on July 28, especially during his Islamabad-Lahore march, he passionately sought the support of the masses for the war he was going to wage for restoring the respect of the ballot you will easily read his mind. It is easy to predict his politics.”

He said Mr Sharif might return to London soon for Begum Kulsoom’s scheduled chemotherapy.

Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2017