ISLAMABAD - One question surfaced again and again in former prime minister Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif’s meeting with senior journalists and editors Saturday. “Why was he holding back?” It came through an animated plea by Imtiaz Alam. It came through a measured query by Mujibur Rehman Shami. And, several others repeated the theme. Imtiaz Alam was particularly emphatic as he stood up and urged the former prime minister not to play the victim anymore. “How long would we see the retreat of democratic forces?” Mr Alam asked in his impassioned speech. “You know what has happened with you. Why are you hiding it? Tell the people of Pakistan,” Mr Alam said. “If you cannot, just tell us, go back to your home and we will have tea with you,” he continued, as whispers erupted in the hall and some urged the veteran journalist to calm down.

In all this while Nawaz Sharif kept his cool, listened patiently – and even managed to smile. “For now, I want to remain silent,” the former prime minister said at one point when pushed to elaborate on the conspiracy behind his removal from office.

Earlier, Mr Sharif, in his opening remarks, expressed his surprise and disappointment with the Supreme Court verdict. And, he reiterated his old defence. The accusations were not about his time in office or corruption or embezzlement. They were about his family’s private business and wealth. He stressed that he never received a salary from his son’s Gulf based company and was, therefore, not bound to declare it in his tax returns.

On Saturday afternoon, Mr Sharif had returned from Murree to Punjab House, his temporary residence before he moves back to Lahore. He was clearly buoyed by the reaction of the crowds on the way to Islamabad. Hussain Nawaz Sharif, his son, who was also present along with Maryam Nawaz Sharif, said that he had seen a different, passionate mood in the crowds and it was very encouraging.

The former prime minister was not in a mood to answer many queries. Instead, he asked those present in the room to give suggestions and analysis. Most jumped at the opportunity, quickly turning from questions to advice.

“You have to come up with an out-of-the-box political strategy that would be a bulwark against the conspirators,” said columnist Hafeez Ullah Niazi. “You have to bring the public out. It will put the conspirators on defensive.”

Mr Sharif stuck to his characteristic silence over many questions and pointed criticism. But he also said that he was aggrieved and hurt by the court verdict. “I am silent after the verdict. I have not commented yet,” he said. “I believe in the rule of law. I believe in strengthening democracy.”

He did wonder whether the courts could give the same kind of a verdict against military dictators. “Can any court give a verdict against a military dictator like this?” Mr Sharif asked after he expressed regret that he and his whole family were hauled before the court.

His disdain for the former army chief Gen Pervez Musharraf was obvious. “The former dictator said dictatorship is better than democracy. I don’t know in which world he is living.”

Mr Sharif said in 2007 he refused to meet the former dictator despite repeated insistence and declined to cut a deal.

Mr Shami, the veteran columnist from Lahore, said Mr Sharif needed to reflect on how a conspiracy succeeded while he was still in power and termed it a unique situation in the country’s history.

Shami said steps should have been taken against those forces which were involved in the 2014 siege of the capital. He said within six months more court cases would open. “The Supreme Court verdict is not an ordinary verdict. It cannot be undone just by narrative,” Mr Shami said. “You need to make a strategy on how to deal with what is about to occur in the future.” He suggested that Mr Sharif needed to develop a wide political consensus and use the parliament to stop such judgments in future.

Some others, like Zia Shahid, suggested that Mr Sharif needed to take the other, more pragmatic route and not aggravate the situation by having a further confrontation with the army. He urged the former prime minister to reflect on why the rank and file of the army had turned against him. “You pushed a naked force to the extent that it had to bounce back,” the Lahore based senior journalist said.

Mr Sharif patiently listened to the senior journalists and kept his cards close to his chest, refusing to divulge most of his thoughts.

Interestingly, Rameeza Majid Nizami, the publisher of this paper, noted it was rare that Mr Sharif was holding an interactive session with journalists. During his four-year tenure, Mr Sharif mostly remained aloof and distant from interviews.

Mr Sharif also said he wanted to go to Lahore Sunday by the Grand Trunk Road, the historic highway that connects the cities where Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz enjoys immense popularity. “I was told by the security detail not to go by GT Road even though I was in favour of using it,” he said.

A few hours after the Punjab House session, Asif Kirmani, Mr Sharif’s top aide, said in a press statement that the decision to travel by Motorway had been reversed. Now, the former prime minister will travel by the GT Road.

A boisterous welcome lies ahead, and so do many perils.