Project Nawaz could be Pakistan’s path to redemption

Nawaz Sharif’s return after four years of exile marks a turning point for the troubled nation. It starts a new political shadow play in which the army plays puppeteer
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Sourav Roy)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Sourav Roy)

The Pakistan Muslim League bussed in a huge crowd from its strongholds across Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for last Saturday’s rally at Lahore’s Minar-e-Pakistan perhaps to send out the message that jailed archrival Imran Khan was no more than an empty threat. Orchestrated or real, the massive show of strength that marked the October 21 homecoming of Mian Nawaz Sharif cannot but go down in history as a turning point in the annals of the increasingly troubled nation. The return ended the three-time former Pakistan prime minister’s four-year self-imposed exile. It paves the way for Nawaz’s possible re-election as prime minister, if and when courts overturn his disqualification from holding office and extend bail to prevent jail time.

The Pakistan army’s ‘Project Nawaz’—which Imran, indicted Monday for violating the Official Secrets Act, has long called ‘Project London’—finally comes to fruition after months of protracted negotiations in Washington, London and Dubai. Given Nawaz’s emotional connection with his followers, will the return translate into a true political comeback?  

For sceptics, there’s a sense of déjà vu. The homecoming is yet another political merry-go-round which sees the military locking up one favourite as he falls from grace and freeing another to bend to their will, using corruption charges and the threat of jail as a stick to ensure compliance.

But those who diss the elder Sharif for making a backroom deal with the army while in exile cannot ignore his anti-establishment streak—his track record of challenging the military’s writ not once but thrice. He was first removed from office in 1999 despite being hand-picked to supplant the Pakistan People’s Party’s Bhuttos. Will his electrifying return see him take a fourth shy at prime ministership and would he be given a free hand this time to run the nuclear-armed country?

One of the factors behind this dramatic break from the past could be the unprecedented level of trust between ‘Big Brother’ Nawaz and the new army chief, General Syed Asim Munir, who owes his post to the Sharifs.  Munir was appointed army chief a day after he was set to retire from office. Imran had axed the general when, as the Inter-Services Intelligence chief, Munir had brought the then prime minister’s attention to his wife Bushra Bibi’s illegal sale of state gifts in the infamous Toshakhana case.

Nawaz and his hand-picked army chief have made no bones about the grudge they bear towards Munir’s predecessor, the former army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Alongside ISI chief Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, Bajwa orchestrated ‘outsider’ Imran’s rise, Nawaz’s ouster in 2017, and the dismissal of Munir as ISI chief in February 2022.

Imran, on the other hand, has milked his incarceration to the hilt. Surveys pitch his support at 60 percent, heightening his ability to influence the elections if they are held in late December or early January. The public blames the government of Shahbaz Sharif, which procured a much-needed loan from the International Monetary Fund, for the runaway 31 per cent inflation, not Imran’s mishandling.  Nawaz’s enduring popularity in the traditional strongholds of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will be tested.

That Nawaz hasn’t completely shed his antipathy towards the military establishment may be a saving grace. He didn’t name the army, but blamed the jail authorities, for preventing him from speaking to his beloved wife Kulsoom as she lay on her deathbed and for not allowing him to conduct her last rites.

Insiders say Nawaz, who is pushing 73 and is not in the pink of health, has primarily returned not to take on Bajwa, Faiz or the pro-Imran upper rungs of the military who set off the insurrection on May 9. That job is being left to the army chief, who has not only sidelined top generals who are pro-Bajwa, but also Bajwa’s extended family who are real estate tycoons.

Taking on the mantle of prime minister could require protracted court hearings to overturn the judgement barring Nawaz from office and clearing the corruption charges. So insiders say Nawaz will lead the poll campaign but focus on creating a legacy, boosting daughter Maryam Nawaz who serves as the party’s vice president but doesn’t enjoy the loyalty the father evokes among the party faithful. Nawaz must win back loyalists such as former premier Shahid Khaqan Abbasi—who is uncomfortable playing second fiddle to the Sharif progeny—or he would be staring at a split down the middle.

The ties with allies under the umbrella of the Pakistan Democratic Movement are also frayed. Former president and PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari has reached out to PML-Nawaz malcontents, breakaway factions of Imran’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, Maulana Fazlur Rehman of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazl), and the Balochistan Awami Party. Asif is pushing for a bigger role for his son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, and has broken from the compact that Nawaz and Bilawal’s slain mother Benazir Bhutto arrived at before they returned from self-exile in 2007.

Insiders warn that Imran, who is being treated well in jail, could still be a card the army could play if Nawaz stays true to his style and throws a spanner in the works. For now, and unlike when his bête noire Pervez Musharraf upset his India peace plan, Nawaz has the promise of a free hand in developing economic ties with India as he navigates the debt trap with China.

Taking no chances on Project Nawaz veering from the playbook, Munir reportedly dispatched ISI chief Lieutenant General Nadeem Anjum to Dubai for a quick discussion to ensure Nawaz’s anti-establishment rhetoric is toned down. A similar advice was proffered by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. They back the military-civilian establishment in entrusting Pakistan to Nawaz’s hands as they build Islamabad back into a bulwark against Shia Iran, which is seen as a major driver in the Israel-Hamas conflict that threatens to engulf the region. Project Nawaz is the ultimate balancing act.

Neena Gopal

Foreign policy analyst

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