ISLAMABAD - Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is under immense pressure from his own party and the opposition groups after lifting the travel ban on former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, close aides said yesterday.

The saner elements within his Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), however, believe he might have saved the democratic set-up with this ‘wise’ decision.

Musharraf’s departure was in sharp contrast to Sharif’s unceremonious exit after the 1999 coup when the ruling elite was sent to Saudi Arabia.

Sharif and his family were dispatched like prisoners but in Musharraf’s case a six-car convoy pulled up next to the aircraft in Karachi and he boarded the plane after most of the passengers had taken their seats. The last few passengers were stopped in their tracks as Musharraf climbed up the service stairs on the Jet-bridge to board the plane.

When the flight landed in Dubai, another VVIP convoy pulled up next to the aircraft on the tarmac to receive and whisk him away.

Immediately after landing in Dubai, Musharraf started his political activities to further embarrass the government who insisted the former military ruler was allowed to fly abroad only for medical treatment.

A close aide of the premier told The Nation, Sharif was trying to calm down the party leaders after the ‘crucial’ decision.

“There is a divide in the party. Some accept there was no other option but others suggest it had damaged the party’s reputation,” he added.

He said Sharif was under immense pressure but hoped to convince hawks in the party to understand the logic behind the decision.

Another official said it was not the best choice for Sharif to lift the travel ban on Musharraf but he felt it was the better option.

“The issue was discussed and the PM came out with a decision that was good for the government. In this case personal opinion of the PM and some senior members of the party was sacrificed,” he said.

The official said the PM did not want to annoy the establishment by pushing for treason trial of a former army chief.

“The message from the establishment is positive. The meeting on security Friday (today) was also candid,” he said citing the sitting chaired by the PM. Army Chief Raheel Sharif and Director General Inter-Services Intelligence Lt. General Rizwan Akhtar were in attendance. The civil and the military leadership were ‘satisfied’ with the operation against terrorism, an official said hinting the Musharraf issue was discussed.

For Sharif it may be easy to placate the PML-N leaders who differed with the idea of giving safe passage to Musharraf but handling the opposition parties will need some guts.

Soon as the decision was announced, Pakistan People’s Party chief Bilawal Bhutto Zardari said his party threw Musharraf out of the presidency and the PML-N allowed him to escape.

“Benazir Bhutto deprived him from his real power: his uniform. Asif Ali Zardari threw him out of presidency. What did you do? Set him free,” he added. Bilawal directed his party to take up the issue in and outside the parliament.

The party obliged as Shazia Marri asked the government to explain why Musharraf was given the special treatment. Speaking in the National Assembly, she said a man who was facing high treason case was allowed to leave the country like a VVIP.

Opposition leader in the National Assembly Khurshid Shah said the rushing out of the former military ruler proved Prime Minister Sharif himself wanted to give him a safe exit.

Shah said there were ‘influential people’ who did not support enforcement of article 6. The PPP veteran said the government was in pressure since the beginning on Musharraf’s case.

Another PPP leader Maula Bux Chandio, Sindh Chief Minister’s Advisor on Information, alleged the government had signed a new National Reconciliation Ordinance with Musharraf.

And before leaving for Kolkata, to watch the Pakistan-India cricket match, Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf chief Imran Khan expressed shock over the government’s decision to lift Musharraf’s travel ban. Khan said he was surprised over Sharif’s new found love for Musharraf.

“I am asking the Prime Minister why he let him go to Dubai. Why was he beating about the bush regarding article 6. How did he fall in Musharraf’s love,” the cricketer-turned politician said.

Awami Muslim League chief Sheikh Rashid Ahmed also criticised the PML-N government for allowing Pervez Musharraf to leave Pakistan. He said the ruling party lacked the will to offend army by pushing for Musharraf's prosecution.

Federal Minister Ahsan Iqbal, who had pledged to quit if Musharraf was allowed to escape, said the opposition parties would have called the government ‘cruel’ if the former military ruler was stopped from going abroad for medical treatment.

“I stand with the decision and my words too. The cases against Musharraf are intact and he will have to face them,” Iqbal remarked.

Special Assistant to the Prime Minister for Law Ashtar Ausaf Ali said the government had given permission to Pervez Musharraf to proceed abroad for treatment but he would return to the country and face the trial.

“The decision has been taken in accordance with the Supreme Court verdict and Musharraf has been allowed to go abroad on humanitarian grounds,” he claimed.

Earlier, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan ruled out any ‘secret deal’ with Musharraf saying Musharraf’s travel ban was lifted to allow him medical treatment out of Pakistan.

He said the PPP and others were blowing the issue out of proportions. “They will criticise the government if we reject his plea and do the same if we allow him to go,” he contended.

The minister recalled the PPP had presented guard of honour to Musharraf in their tenure when he quit power in 2008.

Khan pointed out the PPP could not solve Benazir Bhutto murder case during their 5-year-long tenure. “Musharraf was allowed to travel abroad on humanitarian basis. This is all,” he added.

Analyst Dr Khurram Iqbal said Musharraf’s exit would improve ties between the civil and the military leadership.

“They are on the same page on most issues but there are some issues on which they differ a bit. This decision is good for democracy and it will bring the civil and the military leadership closer. Of course they will not be happy if you punish their former chief for treason,” he commented.

PM Sharif, however, has a job at his hands to pacify his own party and silence the opposition parties after the tricky decision. Keeping in view his past bitterness with Musharraf, the even bigger challenge for Sharif would be to digest the decision himself.