LAHORE: Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif on Saturday declared he had “no wish for revenge”, vowing to help the nation thread a potentially “rough course” back to the “lost glory” in a highly anticipated homecoming speech before thousands of cheering supporters at a ‘triumphalist’ rally in the nation’s political capital.
The PML-N supremo, who had been away from the halls of power since his ouster in 2017, announced his return to frontline politics at a massive rally that suggested his four-decade political career might not be over yet. His long-awaited return to Pakistan’s political firmament was, however, overshadowed by turbulent politics, the incarceration of his popular arch-rival Imran Khan and the flagging fortunes of his party.
“We need to start a new journey,” he declared, emphasising the importance of collaboration between all stakeholders.
While seemingly setting a reconciliatory tone to bury the hatchet, the “Lion of Punjab” nevertheless struck a deeper sympathetic chord with his city – that observers said had largely fallen into his incarcerated rival Imran Khan’s lap, saying certain festering wounds inflicted upon him remained unhealed.
“There are some wounds that take time to heal, but I have no wish for revenge. Nawaz Sharif only wishes for the well-being of the people,” he told the crowd, wearing his signature red scarf.
The dream of a prosperous country that he pursued during his rule lied in tatters thanks to his repeated ousters from power, the 73-year-old veteran politician lamented in a notably gravelly voice.
In a muted echo of his post-ouster speeches, the former prime minister also asked the reasons for being toppled: “Are our governments toppled down and rulings are issued against us [for refusing the US and taking a stance for the interest of Pakistan]?”
Observers, however, noted that although the deposed premier emphatically signalled his willingness for reconciliation and studiously avoided mentioning establishment, a series of ambiguous allusions to his ‘unhealed wounds’ and ordeals of the past kept creeping into his speech.
“Tell me, who separated Nawaz Sharif from his nation? We are those who built Pakistan,” he said.
At one point, he quoted a verse from Ghalib: “Ghalib hamen na chhed ke phir josh-e-ashk se/ baithe hain ham tahayya-e-tufan kiye hue.” (Ghalib, tease us not again with the barrage of tears/ We sit here with a determination to take on the storms).
Lahore dressed up
The power show was meticulously planned by the PML-N for weeks. Large posters of Nawaz Sharif were visible at almost every vantage point as the city was dressed up in party flags to receive the fugitive leader.
Party songs forecasting a ‘messianic’ end to all ills blared from huge speakers, as supporters waved party flags.
Fireworks marked his arrival at the event backdropped against monumental Minar-i-Pakistan lit up in green. Earlier, he landed in a chartered plane at the Islamabad airport where he signed and filed appeals against the convictions he was jailed for before he left the country in 2019.
After offering Maghreb prayer, the elder Sharif, joined by his brother Shehbaz, Ishaq Dar, and other party leaders, proceeded to the Lahore Fort.
A visibly emotional Nawaz embraced his daughter Maryam Nawaz and other party leaders.
“I am meeting you after a long time, but my love for you remains intact. You have never betrayed me and I have never betrayed you,” he said as he began the address.
His speech focused on the need to tame runaway inflation and for national unity – in an apparent swipe at the PTI chief, whose campaign for re-election had targeted military generals as well as the judiciary.
Nawaz said he never betrayed his supporters nor did he shy away from any kind of sacrifice.
He recalled how fake cases were framed against him and his party leaders.
“But no one abandoned the PML-N flag.”
Nawaz recounts personal losses
During the address, the former premier also remembered his late parents and wife, recounting the anguish of receiving news of his wife’s passing while in jail and the sorrow of not being able to console his grieving children.
He regretted that he lost his wife and mother “to politics”.
The former prime minister recalled that despite repeated pleas, the jail authorities refused to arrange a phone call.
“After two-and-a-half hours, my number two man came and told me that my wife has passed away,” he said, adding that he had stopped them from breaking the news to Maryam.
“What would she have gone through […] this is our own country, I am a true Pakistani, the love for Pakistan is in my chest,” he said.
Nawaz went on to recount the challenges he encountered when he was trying to establish Pakistan as a nuclear power.
He mentioned that there was evidence in the Foreign Office that Clinton offered him $5 billion in 1999.
He acknowledged that he could have been offered $1 billion as well, “but I am born from the land of Pakistan and this did not give me permission to accept what is against Pakistan’s favour”.
“Tell me, if someone else would have been in my place, you know who, could he have had said this in front of the American president. So, do we get punished for this? Are verdicts announced against us for this reason?” he said.
He said that he served the country with loyalty, adding that whenever he was given a chance, he resolved the issues of Pakistan and never hesitated from any sacrifice.
However, he regretted the “false” cases against him, Shehbaz, Maryam, and other PML-N leaders.Inflation
Nawaz then went on to draw a comparison between the skyrocketing prices of roti (bread) and petrol in the present day and during his time in power.
“Was I ousted for this reason? What is this decision? You are the public, you tell, do you agree with this decision?”
He claimed that if Pakistan had been governed by his 1990 economic model, unemployment would not exist, poverty would be eradicated, and individuals would not have to worry about providing for their children or paying their electricity bills.
He mentioned that the PML-N was asked about its narrative.
“Ask this from the Orange Line, ask this from Green Line, ask this from the motorway, ask our narrative from the Chagai atomic bombs, ask our narrative from the dollar rate, ask our narrative from our morals.”
Defends Shehbaz-led PDM govt
In an apparent bid to exonerate Shehbaz Sharif-led PDM government of the dismal performance, the elder Sharif took the opportunity to defend the 16-month tenure of his brother, arguing that these issues had begun long before their governance.
He waved two copies of electricity bills, which he claimed were from May 2016 and Aug 2022, highlighting the exorbitant increase in them.
“Was this done by Shehbaz Sharif? I am not defending him, I am presenting facts.
“I have come today with electricity bills from May 2016 during my tenure as the PM when there were sit-ins but we were busy doing our work.”
Takes aim at Imran
Avoiding any direct jabs at his arch-rival, Imran Khan, Nawaz promised to adhere to the principles of civility. However, he kept alluding to the PTI chief without mentioning his name.
“You know who was orchestrating the sit-ins? […] But we ensured the provision of electricity to your homes despite the sit-ins,” Nawaz said while commenting on sit-ins during his tenure.
At one point, he said he also carried prayer beads but didn’t feel the need to show them in public – a tacit reference to Imran Khan’s prayer beads which he publicly held in his hands.
Earlier, Maryam Nawaz rallied supporters ahead of Nawaz’s arrival at Minar-i-Pakistan. She addressed the gathered crowd, stating that people from all over Pakistan had come together at Minar-i-Pakistan.
She also mentioned that she would not give a speech, as it was only Nawaz who would be addressing the audience.
“I thought Minar-i-Pakistan was a huge venue, but I didn’t know it would turn out to be small for the PML-N supporters,” she said, urging the supporters to give Nawaz a historic welcome.
Former Punjab chief minister Hamza Shehbaz described how streets in Lahore were packed with supporters.
“This is the Pakistan of 2018,” he said.
‘Architect of Pakistan’
Addressing the rally earlier, PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif said that Nawaz regretted that he was ousted each time he tried to change the destiny of the people.
He said that Nawaz was the architect of Pakistan who was removed from power every time he tried to change the destiny of the nation.
He added that incidents like May 9 could have never occurred when the PML-N chief was in power, recalling that Nawaz endured everything with patience.
“He has returned to heal the wounds of the nation.”
It is noteworthy that Nawaz’s return has been touted for months by his party, which hopes his political clout and “man of the soil” swagger will revive its flagging popularity.
He has been the prime minister three times but has never completed a full term.
His last term ended when he was ousted in 2017 and given a lifetime disqualification from politics after being convicted of corruption in a case he says was politically motivated.
Months later, Nawaz got permission to seek medical care in Britain.
He is widely believed to have continued pulling the strings of his party from a luxury property in London.
His fortunes changed when Imran had a spectacular falling out with the top brass. Imran was later jailed in several cases he claimed were designed to keep him from contesting elections.
Earlier, talking to media in Dubai, the PML-N supremo stated that they were ready for the upcoming general elections but noted that the exercise of delimitation of constituencies for the purpose was to be carried out.
He said a due process was to be followed after census which took time.
Nawaz said everything was in the knowledge of the Election Commission of Pakistan, adding that the Commission would take a “better decision”.
“The Election Commission is the competent body for such decisions. My preference for polls is what the ECP will announce,” he said.
Later, Nawaz arrived in the federal capital through a chartered plane.
The former premier was welcomed by PML-N Senator leader Ishaq Dar and other party leaders.
After consulting his legal team, Nawaz signed an application for the restoration of appeals against convictions in the Avenfield and Al-Azizia references. He also completed his biometric formalities.
Later, the PML-N supremo left for Lahore where he was welcomed by his brother Shehbaz and other party leaders at the airport. From there, he departed for the rally venue in a helicopter.