Composition by Rohail Safdar Munshi
Composition by Rohail Safdar Munshi

The October 5 arrest of Shehbaz Sharif, leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, under corruption charges plunged his already beleaguered Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) into another crisis. This now appears to be a familiar territory for the party, given the numerous run-ins of its leaders with the law in general and the accountability law in particular over the last two years.

The ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), on the other hand, remains largely unencumbered by any such concerns. With opposition parties struggling to come up with any semblance of unity so far, his arrest is expected to tilt the government-opposition balance of power further in the favour of the former. It would not be amiss to suggest that the PMLN appears rudderless and leaderless, reduced to creating fuss, sometimes an excessively charged one, in the Punjab Assembly – as has been witnessed during the presentation of the provincial budget recently – as well as in the National Assembly.

Yet the powers that be remain keen on forcing the PMLN further into a corner. In their calculus, the party continues to be electorally relevant and popular in central Punjab despite its losses in the general elections on July 25, 2018. It still has the potential to claw its way back into power. This explains why the process of accountability is so heavily tilted against it.

Seen within this context, Shehbaz Sharif’s arrest raises serious questions regarding the fairness, neutrality and motives of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). As do the frequent summoning of other PMLN leaders for investigation and the conviction of former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, also for corruption.

Most legal experts agree that the NAB law is a discriminatory piece of legislation. It places the burden of proof on the accused, with superior courts having placed only ephemeral restrictions against this provision. More pertinently, the NAB law was designed to suit the political objectives of Pervez Musharraf’s military-led regime that, initially, sought legitimacy through an anti-corruption crusade. The law’s application, however, became highly selective once a section of the political elite had been co-opted by him.

Ultimately, it gave way to even more political expediency manifested in the National Reconciliation Ordinance that withdrew many corruption cases against senior opposition politicians. The selective application of the NAB law has continued since then in some form or the other. Shehbaz Sharif, for example, has been arrested in a manner usually reserved for uncooperative individuals and those suspected of flying abroad. He was regularly appearing before NAB so there was little chance that he would flee the country. Meanwhile, a number of inquiries against other politicians, most notably, PTI’s power broker in Punjab, Aleem Khan, have meandered along for months.

The timing and the nature of NAB’s latest actions lend themselves to several theories. The first is that NAB’s high command works in tandem with the political interests of those who want to further weaken the PMLN.

The other theory is that NAB’s flexing of its muscles is an effort to attain public acclaim and importance – as is the case with some other state institutions – as an effective bulwark against ‘corrupt politicians’. Even though looking at the larger events through individual motives is often problematic, it still helps explain to some extent why of late there has been a flurry of news headlines around the NAB chief’s statements.

The messianic self-image of Pakistan’s unelected state officials is known to all. They all have a desire to ‘fix’ the system by wielding the largest possible stick against politicians. One such stick is offered by NAB. Since 1999, the bureau has recovered 296 billion rupees, most of it having been recovered from business owners and government officials.

This is contrary to its self-image of a watchdog against political corruption and its current posturing against politicians from a particular party.

This article was published in the Herald's November 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.