New Delhi, Sept. 9: As Nawaz Sharif lands in Islamabad tomorrow, the politics of the subcontinent will be determined by whether Pervez Musharraf will arrest him and throw him into jail or deport him.
“The next 24 hours are crucial,” a government source said, reflecting the intense interest with which Delhi is watching Pakistan wrestle with yet another crisis.
Reports from Pakistan say a special cell is being prepared for the former Prime Minister in Attock jail, where he spent 14 months after Musharraf overthrew him in October 1999. He was later freed and exiled to Saudi Arabia.
“My security is in the hands of God and of course the people of Pakistan,” Sharif said in London before his departure. Around 11.45pm, he was reported to have taken his boarding pass.
Musharraf’s aides have said Sharif will be deported when he lands, with Pakistan’s Geo TV reporting that an Arab country is sending a plane to Rawalpindi’s Chaklala airport that will take him back to Saudi Arabia.
Sharif, in an interview to NDTV, said the President would not “dare” do that.
The Saudi royal family and assassinated Lebanese leader Rafik al-Hariri had guaranteed the deal under which Sharif was exiled for 10 years in 2000. In return, he avoided a life sentence on hijacking and corruption charges.
“We are hoping, we are really hoping, sincerely hoping, His Excellency Nawaz Sharif honours this agreement,” Saudi intelligence chief Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz said. Muqrin and Rafik al-Hariri’s son, Saad, met Musharraf in Islamabad yesterday.
Barricades have come up at Islamabad airport and scores of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (N) party members have been arrested in Lahore and other major cities.
“Thousands of people have been arrested but by the grace of God our supporters are in the millions. That is not going to deter us,” Sharif said.
If he is allowed to go home to Lahore — the Supreme Court has said he had a right to return — Indian analysts say it would galvanise Pakistani politics and throw a spanner in the deal being brokered between Musharraf and another former Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto.
By defying his Saudi protectors, Sharif has upset the Pakistani political applecart as well as America’s carefully laid plans to bring Benazir back as Prime Minister, with Musharraf shedding his uniform after elections in January and remaining President.
If he is allowed to stay in Pakistan — even in jail — it will turn him into a martyr when elections are announced, analysts say.
“Nawaz’s party will sweep Punjab if that happens, which is where 60 per cent of the votes are, even if Benazir takes Sind and the Frontier Province,’’ one analyst said.
Neither officials nor analysts are willing to say which of the two, Sharif or Benazir, is better for India. “All bets are off, we will deal with whoever is in power,” is the Delhi line.