Prime minister for a third time, Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif wants peace with India and even the Taliban – but don’t expect him to have changed.
From an armchair in Pakistan’s version of the Oval Office, Nawaz Sharif points towards the forested slopes of the Margalla Hills. “They are the foothills of the Himalayas,” says the man who reacquired the rights to this office — and to this view — when he returned for a third stint as prime minister in June.
This comeback has given Mr Sharif arguably the toughest job in the world: governing a nuclear-armed nation of 180 million people, beset by terrorism, economic crisis and a perilous confrontation with India.
Only last week, the army was hunting for Islamist gunmen in the hills outside Mr Sharif’s window in the capital, Islamabad. Meanwhile, Pakistani and Indian forces are once again clashing along the “Line of Control”, running through the disputed territory of Kashmir, barely 50 miles to the east.
In his first interview since returning to office, Mr Sharif, calm, deliberate and assured, makes clear that he sees his election victory as a mandate for peace with India. He talks with genuine feeling about the need for reconciliation with Pakistan’s oldest enemy.
“There will be progress and there has to be progress,” says Mr Sharif. “If we have to prosper, there has to be progress on this.”
He says: “We didn’t have any India-bashing slogans in the elections. We don’t believe in such slogans. There have been such slogans in the past — 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago — but not now. In fact, I very clearly spoke about good relations with India even before the elections were happening.”
He goes on: “I made my position very clear: if we get a mandate, we will make sure we pick up the threads from where we left off in 1999 and then reach out to India, sit with them, resolve all our outstanding issues, including the issue of Kashmir, through peaceful means.”
In fact, the 63-year-old politician wants to pick up the threads of his last government in almost every respect. That premiership ended when he was thrown out of power and into jail by his army chief, General Pervez Musharraf, in 1999. This bruising downfall lumbered Mr Sharif with the traditional penalty of political failure in Pakistan — a battery of criminal convictions (all overturned), six months behind bars and seven years of exile in London and Saudi Arabia.
Having achieved political resurrection by winning the election in May, Mr Sharif might be expected to pose as a new man, wiser and more mature than the politician who was cast out of office. In fact, he does not follow this script. On his telling, Mr Sharif offers continuity not change; after all, he believes his previous governments were success stories.
“We did deliver,” he says. “We were able to meet the expectations of the people to some extent. That is why we were re-elected in 1997 and that is why we have been re-elected in 2013.”