Nawaz Sharif: The 'Lion of Punjab' is back

Nawaz Sharif
Islamabad, Jun 5: After years in oblivion, Nawaz Sharif, known as the 'Lion of Punjab', is back on the throne for the record third term as the Prime Minister. As Pakistan finds itself besieged by problems ranging from terrorism to severe power shortage, many see him as someone who can fix the country's bleeding economy. He is also allegedly soft on the Taliban.

A steel tycoon cum politician, Sharif, 63, has made an astounding comeback after being toppled in a 1999 coup, following which he was jailed and exiled to spend seven years in wilderness. Following the May 11 historic general elections, Sharif's centre-right Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) had emerged as the single largest party, falling just short of a majority. However, he was able to gain a strong foothold as many independents came forward to support him.

Sharif had managed to compete  cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan's party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which came third contrary to all the hype. Sharif promised to transform the country's economy, end corruption in state-owned enterprises, build a motorway from Lahore to Karachi and launch a bullet train.

He had stressed on talks with Taliban, but his efforts witnessed a setback after a US drone strike killed Pakistani Taliban's deputy chief Waliur Rahman. The Prime Minister-designate criticised the drone strike, saying the campaign by the CIA-operated spy planes violates Pakistan's sovereignty. Taliban has now threatened retaliatory attacks.

Sharif's last term as Prime Minister ended in 1999 when then Army Chief Pervez Musharraf carried out a bloodless coup. In a dramatic fall from grace, Sharif ended up in jail, convicted of hijacking charges for trying to stop a plane carrying Musharraf from landing. He then went into exile in Saudi Arabia and did not return to Pakistan until 2007, when he teamed up with the PPP to force Musharraf out of office. Incidentally, Musharraf, who came back from self-imposed exile to contest the polls is in jail, following a battery of charges against him.

Leading analyst Imtiaz Gul, the author of the book 'Pakistan: Before and After Osama', said the people were looking forward to Sharif's third term in power with a "considerable degree of optimism". This optimism flows from the impending competition that Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf party is expected to give to the PML-N.

The Tehrik-e-Insaf has driven an agenda for reformation and along with the PML-N would be forced to "walk the talk" under the watchful eye of the Pakistani media to prove that they mean business, Gul said. "There is huge pressure from the media, which tends to challenge politicians whenever it finds any contradictions," he added. 

In the light of Sharif's promises to restart peace processes with India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called him even before the PML-N's victory in the recent polls was announced by the Election Commission. Singh later sent a special envoy-Satinder Lambah-to hold talks with him on ways to take the bilateral peace process forward.

However,  Gul said it would be too early to expect any immediate breakthroughs in India-Pakistan relations, despite the apparent goodwill for Sharif in Delhi. "Unless India's fundamental concerns about groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed are addressed by the Pakistan government, it will be difficult to expect Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to respond," he said.

A "big challenge" for Sharif will be dealing with the powerful military on foreign policy issues to "demonstrate to India that he means business", Gul said. At the same time, Sharif has earned praise in domestic political circles for not blocking efforts by Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf to form government in the military-hit Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and for naming a Baloch nationalist as the Chief Minister of Balochistan even though the PML-N forms the largest party in the coalition government formed in that  province.


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