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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Pakistan may have no new opposition leader, but two former prime ministers want a role. Both are in exile. Both say they want to return for elections later this year. One is Benazir Bhutto and the other is Nawaz Sharif. In the 1990s, he was the prime minister who ordered Pakistan's nuclear tests. He also named a new head of Pakistan's army - a general named Pervez Musharraf.

Mr. NAWAZ SHARIF (Former Prime Minister, Pakistan): I appointed him. So one make mistakes, so maybe this is a mistake that I have made.

INSKEEP: Musharraf soon deposed the prime minister and sent him to prison, then exile. Eight years later, Nawaz Sharif is thinking of returning home.

Mr. SHARIF: Well, I have every intention to go back to Pakistan before the elections; and when will be the elections held, I don't know.

INSKEEP: I'm just trying to figure out how that works if President Musharraf says he's not going to let you back in.

Mr. SHARIF: I think the people of Pakistan will let me back in. He can't stop me. There's no law which prevents me from coming back to my country.

INSKEEP: When you say, Mister Sharif, that the people of Pakistan will let you back in the country, do you mean that you are hoping for demonstrations, protests against the current government that are so strong that President Musharraf would have no choice but to let you in freely?

Mr. SHARIF: Demonstrations are already going on, and they're gaining momentum; and these demonstrations are for the restoration of rule of law, and that is a good omen for Pakistan.

INSKEEP: Are the demonstrations strong enough that you could return now or next week?

Mr. SHARIF: I will give it little more time.

INSKEEP: Mister Sharif, I want to ask about the decade or so before Musharraf took power, a period in which, as you know - you're one of two dominant politicians in Pakistan.

Mr. SHARIF: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Why do you think it was that after that period there were many quarters inside and outside Pakistan where the military coup, at least initially, was greeted with relief?

Mr. SHARIF: I don't know who was celebrating the intervention of the military.

INSKEEP: What I'm saying here is that there was this military coup in 1999. And we can at least say that Pakistan in general received that coup with calm. There were not mass demonstrations until really years later, until almost now.

Mr. SHARIF: Well, everything has its own time; you see, it did take some time to recover. And of course when Mr. Musharraf, after a few weeks, gave a very, very promising agenda so that he keeps the hopes alive, and then failed badly, and now the people are up in arms against this government.

INSKEEP: As you know, any number of Americans have said that they may not love General Musharraf, they may not love military dictators, but that he is an essential U.S. ally in the war on terror. I'd like to know if you were still prime minister, if you were still serving as prime minister, and had been on September 11, 2001, what, if anything, might be different today?

Mr. SHARIF: I don't know why some of the people in the U.S. administration think like that. Mr. Musharraf I think has the tendency of hoodwinking the West. And Musharraf has not done anything special. You see, when I was prime minister, I was having excellent coordination with President Clinton. We had an excellent example of a very cordial relationship on this issue.

INSKEEP: Are you saying that you would have cooperated with the United States in precisely the same way?

Mr. SHARIF: Well, I think Mr. Musharraf, who is not in the habit of taking the people of Pakistan into confidence, he acts just by himself, all alone. I would have also carried the people of Pakistan with me and for a more effective battle against terror.

INSKEEP: The other former prime minister in exile, Benazir Bhutto, has said that she has been involved in talks with Musharraf's government of some kind about restoring the democratic process. Have you been involved in talks with the current government?

Mr. SHARIF: I will never engage myself into any follies with dictators.

INSKEEP: You mean, you wouldn't negotiate terms under which you could come home, for example?

Mr. SHARIF: No, no, no. Not at all.

INSKEEP: Are you willing to...

Mr. SHARIF: You don't talk to criminals. You don't talk to traitors.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm interested in the practicalities. If...

Mr. SHARIF: You see...

INSKEEP: My question was, if you return to Pakistan and you have no assurances from the government that you will be let alone and allowed to walk freely, are you willing to go to jail?

Mr. SHARIF: If we can achieve our objectives by paying the price of going into the jail, that doesn't scare me. I think it'll - to the contrary, I think it'll take this struggle forward. It will take the struggle faster than we all think.

INSKEEP: Thank you very much for the time. I appreciate it.

Mr. SHARIF: You're most welcome. Thank you very much. It was very nice talking to you.

INSKEEP: Nawaz Sharif was Pakistan's prime minister until a coup in 1999. That other former prime minister who also wants to return - Benazir Bhutto - can be heard at npr.org.

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