The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)’s agenda is one of development and economic revival, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif announced on Saturday, as he ended four years of self-imposed exile with a rally at Minar-e-Pakistan, Lahore, where he officially launched his party’s electoral campaign ahead of polls due early next year.
“The PMLN’s agenda, God willing, will be to focus on development, reduce expenditures, increase exports and agriculture, and make Pakistan an I.T. power,” he said, adding the party would also bring about legal reforms and work for the welfare of the youth.
The wide-ranging speech, covering his party’s past legal troubles and the prevailing conditions of the country, took pains to avoid any calls for accountability, with Nawaz acknowledging that he had exercised patience and did not seek vengeance. “Allah will steer us out of crises, but we will try our hardest [to facilitate it],” he said, stressing he had no desire of vengeance in his heart. “The only desire I have is for my nation’s people to become prosperous,” he added.
Referring to the past five years, he dared the crowd to name even one major development project. “They ask us what our narrative is: our narrative is the Green Line in Karachi; the Metro in Lahore; the motorway; the nuclear tests; the price of roti; the value of the dollar,” he said, emphasizing the PMLN believed in ethical values compared to the government of the PTI.
“We need to all work together to devise a plan to benefit the country,” he said, adding that this included all law-abiding institutions and politicians. “This country cannot move forward without unity,” he emphasized. “We will need to wipe out the foundational issue that keeps derailing the country,” he said, calling on the crowd to dedicate itself to starting a new journey together.
“My dedication has not diminished in all my years of politics. It is as youthful as ever,” he said. “We have to decide how to regain lost ground,” he said, stressing the begging bowl must be broken forever. “We must learn to stand on our own feet and figure out how to eradicate unemployment and poverty,” he said, adding unity was needed to devise a viable foreign policy. “We cannot prosper through conflict with our neighbors. We need to work in concert to resolve the Kashmir issue too,” he said.
“If East and West Pakistan had not separated, we could have developed an economic corridor between the two with India’s facilitation by now,” he said, lamenting that West Pakistan had seen East Pakistanis as “jute growers” who had no value. “Now they are prospering! This [policy of isolation] is unacceptable to us, to the PMLN, to our voters, to the Pakistani public,” he emphasized, adding he had returned to wake up the people of Pakistan.
The PMLN leader concluded his speech by calling on the crowd to ensure no one would again be allowed to derail the country. “I have exercised patience today; said nothing I should not have said,” he said, as he led prayers for the people of Palestine, strongly condemning the Israeli atrocities and calling for their right to an independent state; and took pledges to work together to reduce inflation, build roads, and revive the economy.
At the outset of his speech, the PMLN leader noted he was meeting his supporters after a gap of several years. “But my affection for you remains undiminished,” he emphasized, adding the love he saw in the faces of the people in front of him filled him with pride. Stressing he was never betrayed by his followers and had never betrayed them in turn, he said he had worked day and night to resolve Pakistan’s problems whenever he was given a chance to lead the country.
“They made fake cases against me, against Shehbaz Sharif, against Maryam … against everyone here but none of them ever abandoned the PMLN,” he said, questioning who kept pushing him out of the country every few years. “We are among those who laid the foundation of Pakistan; we made it a nuclear power, thanks to Allah,” he said, adding his last government had also ended more than 18 hours of loadshedding.
Summarizing some of the issues he had faced over the past decade, he recalled that he hadn’t been able to talk to his wife on her deathbed, nor had he even seen his mother’s grave. “I had begged a jail official to let me speak to my wife, Kulsoom,” he said, noting he was told he did not have permission to do so. “I went back to my cell and kept thinking how it was so difficult to even let me speak [to Kulsoom],” he said, adding two-and-a-half hours later a jail official told him she had passed away.
Noting the jail official had said they were going to inform Maryam next, he said he had urged them to either bring her to him or let him go to her to inform her himself. “When they allowed me to tell her, she practically fainted,” he recalled.
Maintaining he did not want to engage in any tit-for-tat with political rivals such as PTI chief Imran Khan, he recalled that in 1999, then U.S. President Bill Clinton had offered him $5 billion to not conduct nuclear tests. “But I could not let any amount of money damage the national interest … like some others,” he said in a veiled reference to Khan. “Was it this that encouraged people to oust me?” he questioned. Noting the massive inflation in the years since his ouster, he reiterated whether this was why he was ousted from office.
Lamenting the dharnas against his government during his last tenure as prime minister, he said this had not prevented them from working for the people, recalling various development projects initiated and completed between 2013-17. He said of the past 23 years, he had spent 15 either in jail or in exile.
At one point, responding to members of the crowd exclaiming, “We love you Mian Sahib,” Sharif responded: “I know you want to hear me say it: love you too!”
Taking the podium prior to Nawaz, PMLN President Shehbaz Sharif thanked the rally’s participants for gathering from across the country to give a resounding welcome to his elder brother. “Nawaz Sharif is struggle; Nawaz Sharif is dedication; Nawaz Sharif is passion; Nawaz Sharif is PMLN,” he said, claiming this was the largest gathering ever organized at Minar-e-Pakistan.
“Nawaz Sharif is the man who was ousted from power every time he changed the country’s destiny,” he said, stressing his elder brother had never resorted to violence or unrest—a reference to the May 9 riots of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Shehbaz continued by summarizing the accomplishments of PMLN governments under Nawaz, including the testing of nuclear weapons; attempts to curry peace with India; and end loadshedding. He also led chants calling for Nawaz to be elected prime minister for a fourth time.
Addressing the rally ahead of Nawaz’s arrival, his daughter Maryam said today’s event would solely comprise a speech by the former prime minister. Encouraging the crowd, she claimed that in addition to the tens of thousands at the venue, there were thousands more still trying to reach it. “Nawaz Sharif will be with you once more today,” she said, as she thanked God for helping her father overcome all naysayers.
She also lamented the “torture” inflicted on the PMLN and its workers and supporters since Nawaz’s disqualification in 2017, adding all the atrocities had been successfully overcome by the party.
The PMLN leader left Dubai for Pakistan in the morning, reaching Islamabad via a special chartered flight around 2:15 p.m. After a brief stopover in the federal capital—where he completed immigration procedures and resolved some legal matters—he flew to Lahore, arriving in the Punjab capital around 5 p.m.
Upon his arrival at Lahore’s Allama Iqbal International Airport, his brother, Shehbaz, met the former prime minister. The PMLN leaders then took a helicopter to the venue of the rally, as supporters and party workers who had gathered at the airport proceeded to Minar-e-Pakistan in a caravan. Upon reaching the venue at 6:55 p.m., they and Hamza Shehbaz joined PMLN Chief Organizer Maryam Nawaz, who had reached it an hour earlier.
Prior to the rally, the PMLN had vowed a “historic” welcome for Nawaz, and it largely delivered, with reports of tens of thousands of supporters at the rally venue from across Pakistan. Speaking with media, supporters—whether from Balochistan, Sindh, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, or south Punjab—said they were coming to greet “leader” Nawaz, adding they hoped he would steer the country on the path to prosperity.
There was heavy security for the rally, with the interim Punjab government deploying over 12,000 police personnel, including plain-clothed officials. Additionally, 3,000 traffic wardens were tasked with ensuring the smooth flow of traffic. Authorities also issued a traffic plan for the city a day earlier, aimed at ensuring minimal traffic disruptions to the public.