The arrest of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) President Shahbaz Sharif in a corruption case has quelled rumours, which were created by his close aide, of a deal with the establishment, under which former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was also released by the court. After his arrest, prospects of detention of his elder brother and his daughter have also increased.
It is said Shahbaz Sharif was arrested by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) after former Principal Secretary to ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Fawad Hassan Fawad, turned approver against him in the Ashiana Housing scam. Sources say NAB had arranged a one-on-one meeting between them, where Fawad informed the investigators that he had acted upon the advice of Shahbaz Sharif and signed contracts, which caused a loss of billions of rupees to the national exchequer. However, critics have raised many questions on his arrest. They say the timing of his arrest is significant as he was caged to bar the PML-N from winning by-polls. He was arrested despite cooperation with the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) and appearing before it whenever he was summoned. To them, his arrest was not needed because he was not in a position to influence the investigation as he does not hold any executive office.
Earlier, former Punjab Education Minister Rana Mashhood, a close aide to Shahbaz Sharif, claimed that the former Punjab chief minister had negotiated a patch-up between the party and the establishment and as a result, the Punjab government of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) could collapse in two months and the PML-N would be back in power in the province. In an interview to a news channel, which he retracted after the party distanced itself from it, but accepted again after Shahbaz Sharif’s arrest, he said the security establishment had played a key role in the PTI victory in the 2018 elections, but it realised that the PTI leaders were not capable of delivering what had been expected of them. When asked whether civil-military tensions that had reportedly marred the tenure of the last PML-N government still existed after the end of the party’s rule, he said, “I think the relations have improved to a considerable extent. The situation has improved because ‘they’ have now realised that those whom they had considered horses, turned out to be mules. And the mules are not able to deliver.”
His remarks invoked strong criticism by the military. “Attribution of an obvious vested statement by Rana Mashhood is baseless and regrettable,” tweeted Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Director General Maj-Gen. Asif Ghafoor. “Such irresponsible expressions are detrimental to stability in the country,” he added, without elaborating. The PML-N also distanced itself from his remarks. “The statement is surprising,” said PML-N spokesperson Marriyum Aurangzeb, adding that the party had sought an explanation from him. After a strong reaction from his own party, Mashhood issued a clarification, claiming that his interview clips were broadcast out of context. In its reaction, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) said, “The cat is out of the bag following Rana Mashhood’s statement. It has thus been proven that the PML-N had been actively seeking a deal with the establishment in the name of democracy.”
Advancing Shahbaz Sharif’s agenda, veteran PML-N leader Javed Hashmi claimed that internal differences in the ruling party would not let the government complete its tenure. Accepting that “All politicians are products of the establishment,” he said the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government would only complete two years of the five-year public mandate given to it in the July 25 polls. “Look, there are more than five different factions in the ruling party and the internal division led to disqualification of PTI MPA Salman Naeem in PP-217.” On October 1, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) disqualified Salman, an independent, who later joined the PTI. He had defeated Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in the general elections for PP-217 seat of the Punjab Assembly. The petition was filed by a local leader of the PTI, who had identified that Salman was underage.
It is understandable that Mashhood’s outburst was not without any purpose. It aimed to keep the party intact ahead of by-polls in the Punjab and it worked as the PML-N managed to bag all its votes in the Senate by-poll, unlike the election of Punjab Speaker Pervaiz Elahi, when at least seven of PML-N legislators had voted for him. The prediction about the demise of the Punjab government aimed to win by-polls for 13 Punjab Assembly seats. At present, the PTI leads the House with at least 14 seats. It is impossible for the PML-N to win all seats. Pakistan’s history shows that by-elections are always won by the ruling party. However, Mashhood’s lofty claim provided a new hope to his party’s legislators and the party can narrow the margin, but still cannot overtake the PTI. The removal of Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar is not possible as a result of a no-confidence motion. He could only be replaced by a court order or Prime Minister Imran Khan, if he fails to deliver.
The talk of a deal with the establishment aimed to give a message to party workers and legislators that Shahbaz Sharif is the only hope for the party after the disqualification of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. It also aimed to convince party workers that the politics of the party has been shifted to Shahbaz Sharif’s family, instead of Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz. Hamza Shahbaz has already started calling the shots after the arrest of his father. However, the impression of a deal with the establishment has gone down the drain after Shahbaz Sharif’s arrest. The establishment had also reacted sharply against Mashhood’s remarks. It appears his remarks were only wishful thinking of the party and Shahbaz Sharif.