FeaturedNationalVolume 14 Issue # 06

Nawaz out, Shahbaz in

Pakistan politics is a many splendoured spectacle. It excites, enthralls and continues to throw up surprise after surprise. The latest turn in events is the arrest of Shahbaz Sharif soon after Nawaz Sharif was freed from jail on bail.

Unexpectedly, last week Shahbaz Sharif, former chief minister of Punjab and current leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, was arrested by NAB. According to media reports, Shahbaz Sharif had appeared before the authorities in the Saaf Pani case but was detained for alleged involvement in the Ashiana Housing scandal.

The former CM Punjab is being investigated for allegedly canceling a contract with a company and awarding it to a “favorite” one in the Ashiana Iqbal housing scheme and Punjab Saaf Pani Company. The Saaf Pani Company was established by the previous Punjab government to plan, design and manage projects for the provision of safe drinking water to people living in rural areas of the province. But there was zero result from the entire exercise.

Hamza Sharif, son of Shahbaz Sharif and opposition leader in Punjab, has termed the arrest a case of political victimization. In his view, his party was being targeted for their pro-democracy narrative in Pakistan. He has also accused the government and other institutions of pre-poll rigging like in the case of his uncle and former party head Nawaz Sharif who was arrested by the authorities after an accountability court found him guilty in the Avenfield reference filed by NAB. The ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who was recently released on bail on the orders of the Islamabad High Court has also described the arrest of his younger brother as regretful and ridiculous.

Some analysts have raised the issue of timing of the arrest of the former CM on the eve of the by-elections in Lahore. In their opinion, the step was meant to damage the electoral prospects of the PML-N. But the final outcome of the polls showed that the PML-N did not lose, but gained from the development. The volume of its sympathy vote increased and PTI lost its seat.

It is notable that all opposition parties, including the PPP and the JUI-F, have condemned Shahbaz Sharif’s arrest as an act of political revenge. But Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry says that the federal government is non-partisan and that the Shahbaz arrest was purely NAB’s doing. Fawad added: “The appointment of chairman NAB was done by Khursheed Shah and PML-N. The entire set-up was  decided upon by PML-N and PPP, and the Bureau is functional since 1997″. The minister went on to say that none of the corruption cases filed against Sharif brothers were filed by the PTI.

According to government sources, massive corruption worth Rs56 billion has been discovered in various cases involving Shahbaz Sharif. As per a NAB notice sent to the former Punjab chief minister on January 16, 2018, Shahbaz is accused of ordering the cancellation of award of contract of Ashiana-i-Iqbal to successful bidder Chaudhry Latif and Sons,  transfer of the same to Lahore Casa Developers, a proxy group of Paragon City Private Limited, which resulted in the loss of approximately Rs193 million. He is also accused of directing the Punjab Land Development Company (PLDC) to assign the Ashiana-i-Iqbal project to the Lahore Development Authority (LDA), resulting in the award of contract to the Lahore Casa developers, causing a loss of Rs715m. NAB has also accused Shahbaz of directing the PLDC to award the consultancy services of the Ashiana-i-Iqbal project to Engineering Consultancy Services Punjab (ECSP) for Rs192m while the actual cost was supposed to be Rs35m as quoted by Nespak.

It is an established Pakistani tradition that when a political leader is ensnared in a corruption investigation he cries foul and calls it political victimization. They also chant the mantra of “democracy in danger”. But a detailed study of Shahbaz Sharif’s  case shows that NAB followed the due process of law. This is proved by the fact that the Speaker of the National Assembly was duly informed before the arrest took place. Further,Asad Qaiser, the speaker who is a member of the PTI, ordered NAB to produce Shahbaz Sharif who was allowed to address parliament as per the rules of the House.

But, instead of appreciating the gesture, Shahbaz Sharif flew off at a tangent and hurled allegations of collusion between NAB and the PTI government. This amounted to politicizing an accountability inquiry and subverting the legal process. He also attacked Imran Khan and said his premiership of Imran Khan is an outcome of rigging. In a 360 degree about-turn, the PML-N president thanked the PPP co-chairman Bilawal Bhutto and other opposition leaders for demanding his presence for the NA session and added: “I am not here to discuss the merits of my case, this is not the forum but I will detail the duplicity of the accountability process.”

According to the latest update, the PML-N is reviewing the entire situation and will announce its future course of action soon. In all probability, it will take the path of agitational politics because almost all its leading lights are under NAB’s radar for corruption and misuse of office. The only way to save their skin is to cry foul and political victimization, and this is what they are going to do.