Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif left the Punjab House in Islamabad around noon on Wednesday, embarking on a long road-trip back to his hometown, Lahore, via the Grand Trunk (GT) Road.
Progress had been slow, however, and his convoy was held up at the Faizabad interchange in Islamabad for quite some time after he reached there in the late afternoon.
In the evening, the caravan travelled almost one kilometre on Murree road in three hours. At present, the rally is moving through Shamsabad area.
Sources in the PML-N claim that Nawaz Sharif will either stay at Punjab House or at the residence of Senator Chaudhary Tanvir.
Police officials estimated Wednesday evening that around 8,000 to 8,500 people and 900 to 950 vehicles — including government and private cars — are part of the procession.
Sources in PML-N said that the party has failed to take the desired number of activists to roads as party workers in the twin cities are not happy with the local leadership.
Nawaz’s motorcade had moved onto Jinnah Avenue from D-Chowk in Islamabad, where he was expected to address supporters who had gathered from Peshawar, Abbottabad, and the outer areas of Islamabad.
However, the address was cancelled "due to security reasons", DawnNews reported. Observers speculated that the speech may have been put off due to the smaller-than-expected crowd gathered to receive the ousted premier.
The motorcade later made its way to Faizabad Interchange, where it remains held up. There are unconfirmed reports that the former prime minister may not be able to depart Rawalpindi tonight and will have to spend the night there.
Nawaz Sharif has also been moved to his bulletproof container from his car, in which he had started the journey. A helicopter has been following the procession to provide security to the former PM's convoy.
Meanwhile, tight security preparations have been made along GT road, with the deployment of plain-clothed policemen as well as elite force commandos.
Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal, who was heading the motorcade to monitor security, told DawnNews that safety has been ensured for the participants as well as PML-N leaders.
A mobile health unit has been prepped for the rally, which includes a team of doctors who will provide medical services to the participants, if needed.
“Politicians, including Nawaz Sharif, cannot stay away from the people,” he said from inside his car. “People are stopping Nawaz and welcoming him at every stop," he claimed. "I believe he will reach Lahore in 2-3 days."
Plans for the rally
Before his departure, Sharif held a meeting with his close confidantes, including Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar and party leader Abid Sher Ali at Punjab House. Nawaz left from the back gate of the building, disappointing some of his supporters who had gathered to see him off.
"This is not a power show, but I have to complete a century — I'm not going anywhere," Nawaz said to reporters while embarking on his journey.
At least 5,000 people were expected to accompany the former premier throughout the journey, whereas thousands were expected to receive and see off their leader at the borders of their respective constituencies.
DawnNews, however, reported that the camps set up for the rally were nearly empty up until Sharif left the Punjab House.
Various PML-N MNAs have been instructed to remain in their constituencies and stations, and to bring out supporters to greet the rally when it arrives.
Given the elaborate plans made for the reception of the former prime minister on GT Road, it has been predicted that it may take four to six days to reach Lahore. The official schedule, however, states that the rally will arrive in Lahore by Thursday.
The procession is being carried out despite concerns for the former premier's safety within the PML-N leadership.
Earlier reports had suggested that his brother Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal and his predecessor Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan were among several close figures who had warned the ousted PM against proceeding to Lahore by road.
Nawaz, however, had remained adamant to embark on his journey, which he maintains is not "a protest" but "a journey back home" that he is undertaking because "risks need to be taken for the country".
A 'grand homecoming'
PML-N is banking on its workers to make the return of the former prime minister to his hometown a ‘historic’ occasion in order to gain some much-needed political mileage in the face of the challenges its government is facing.
Nawaz, who was asked to be removed as the chief of PML-N by the Election Commission of Pakistan on Tuesday, is also expected to announce a candidate for NA-120, the seat left vacant from his ouster, upon his arrival in Lahore.
Nawaz was removed from his post as the prime minister by the Supreme Court in the Panama Papers judgement last month. A five-member apex bench had found Sharif "unfit to hold office", ruling that he had been "dishonest to the parliament and the courts in not disclosing his employment in the Dubai-based Capital FZE company in his 2013 nomination papers."
PML-N workers from across Punjab have been mobilised by their local leadership to reach Lahore and other points to welcome their leader.
Earlier, PTI and its chief Imran Khan had alleged that state machinery was being used in a bid to make Nawaz’s return to Lahore a ‘historic’ event.
“The Punjab government is using all its resources to make the show (Nawaz’s return to Lahore) a success,” PTI leader Abdul Aleem Khan said, questioning why National Assembly Speaker Ayaz Sadiq was overseeing the arrangements regarding Nawaz’s return to Lahore.
On Tuesday, Awami Muslim League (AML) chief Sheikh Rashid alleged that Nawaz Sharif's GT Road procession was an attempt by the ousted prime minister to seek a National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) from the army.
The NRO was a controversial ordinance promulgated by former president Pervez Musharraf which granted amnesty to politicians, political workers and bureaucrats accused of corruption, embezzlement, money launder, murder and terrorism.
"Whoever gives Nawaz Sharif a way out, whoever lets him off easy, whoever prevents him from being presented to institutions, the entire nation will stand before him," Rashid thundered.
Prominent cleric and Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) chief Tahirul Qadri, addressing a gathering after his return to Lahore also on Tuesday, heavily criticised the Sharif family, accusing them of undermining democracy.
He said that it was not contrary to democratic practices that Nawaz had been disqualified by the SC.
"Who are you protesting against?" Qadri asked, adding that the former premier had been let off easy as he was not sent to jail.
The PAT leader also asked his party workers to "welcome" Nawaz upon his cavalcade's arrival at Lahore.
With additional reporting by Fahad Chaudhry, Arif Malik, Mubashir Zaidi, Saifullah Cheema, Nadir Guramani, Sadia Rafay, Inamullah Khattak and Amir Kayani.