Six years ago, Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader and three-time Prime Minister, was ousted from power after he fell out with the powerful military establishment. In the subsequent election, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) of Imran Khan, then a “darling” of the establishment, was voted to power. Mr. Sharif was disqualified and jailed while his party accused the military of rigging the election in favour of the PTI. In 2019, he went into exile in London. Four years later, the situation has changed dramatically. Mr. Khan, who was ousted from power last year, is now in jail and a critic of the military, and Mr. Sharif, once a foe of the generals, returned last week amid fanfare, with thousands of his supporters chanting at a rally, ‘Take charge again, save Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif.’ Pakistan is no stranger to such political somersaults, where politicians join hands with the generals to tackle their opponents and make their path to power smoother, only to be laid down by the military. Mr. Sharif himself has done this thrice. So, Pakistan is back to the past when Mr. Sharif returns to the country, probably in an understanding with the generals, ahead of the general elections. He wants power and the generals want to sideline their new foe, Mr. Khan, and dismantle his party. It is a marriage of convenience.
After his ouster, Mr. Khan launched a frontal attack on the PML-N and the military. The establishment, along with the post-Khan coalition government that was headed by Mr. Sharif’s younger brother Shehbaz Sharif, responded with a massive crackdown on the PTI. But the military’s witch-hunt has only made Mr. Khan more popular. On the other side, the PML-N, Mr. Khan’s main political rival, was grappling with internal divisions and external challenges. The party now hopes that the charismatic elder Sharif, who is popular among its conservative base and influential among Punjab’s wealthy business establishment, revives the PML-N ahead of the elections. For Mr. Sharif, the support of the generals is necessary to vacate the cases he faces and have his disqualification lifted. But the road ahead is tough. There is a groundswell of anger against the PML-N under whose watch the economic situation has deteriorated, with hyperinflation, joblessness, a tanking rupee and a looming balance of payment crisis. To overcome these challenges and defeat Imran Khan, Mr. Sharif would need the blessings of, if not active support from, the generals, which in turn would weaken the civilian institutions and strengthen the hands of the military. And his own record suggests that Mr. Sharif does not get along with the generals after the honeymoon period. This is the cyclical tragedy Pakistan finds itself within.