Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s uncharacteristic outburst against the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) this week resounded more than it astounded political circles and commentators.
People did not miss Imran Khan much, who has been holidaying in the Maldives, as television channels and newspapers continued to analyse the reasons and consequences of the sudden hard feelings of the otherwise cool elder Sharif.
If frustration was behind it, as some say, it would be understandable.
After all, the prime minister and his party were expecting acclaim over their achievements – standing his ground against PIA strikers and closing the multi-billion dollar LNG deal with Qatar – instead of being hounded by the talk of a NAB probe into the deal and other pet projects such as the Metro Bus, Orange Train, LDA City.
Even worse was the talk that old cases against Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif might be reopened, even though they have obtained stay orders from the courts.
In his attack on NAB, the prime minister broadly suggested that the PML-N could cut NAB down to size, or form a commission to watch over its activities.
That would be politically incorrect, since today’s NAB and its chairman, Qamar Zaman Chaudhry, are the product of a bipartisan consensus. Not only would the PML-N be doing what it had loudly criticised the PPP for doing in Sindh – reining in the powers of the Rangers – but would also lend weight to PPP charges that the PML-N government used NAB and other federal agencies to carry out ‘selective accountability’ and a ‘witch-hunt’ in Sindh.
Indeed, the situation looks much more ominous to political observers and analysts, who wonder what made the prime minister take on NAB personally, when a lesser figure in the cabinet or party could have fired the warning shot just as easily.
In background discussions, lawmakers from different political parties and government officials privy to the development, provided no direct clue and yet, expected more fireworks.
Some thought that the PML-N leadership would want to smother any activity that paints it black in the run up to the next elections, even if they are far away.
It would like to enter the battle in the shining armour of progress and with state-of-the-art edifices firmly in the ground.
It was Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif who prodded his elder brother “to be tough”, according to a ruling party parliamentarian. “NAB had turned its eyes on Punjab and was in the process of going ahead with a few important arrests from within the ruling party on the charges of corruption. That would have stained the party’s clean image in the public eye,” he said.
Others added that the arrests would have had knock-on effect on the bureaucracy, the mainstay of the PML-N’s governance. “In the event, government officers will think twice before doing the bidding of their political masters, and that will directly affect our party’s development projects,” explained one.
A PTI lawmaker said the prime minister’s harsh remarks against the NAB reflected the frustrations of the PML-N leaders both at the centre and in Punjab. “Instead of improving the life of the common man, their hopes to hanging on to power hang on building roads and flyovers and metro bus,” he said.
To him PML-N was “habitual of picking up fights with institutions, mainly to divert attention from the failures of their government. I will not be surprised if the duo blasts other institutions in the coming weeks,” said the PTI lawmaker.
A PPP MNA from Sindh did not agree that the PM’s attack on the NAB put the PML-N and the PPP on the same side. “Just wait and watch how things unfold,” he advised. “A little retrospection would reveal that whenever the PML-N leadership throws the gauntlet against a state institution something serious is brewing.”
Meanwhile, sources close to the NAB and the security establishment say no one should expect them to back off from their campaign against corrupt elements and banned outfits hiding in the southern districts of Punjab.
Whatever may have led the prime minister to attack the NAB, “we will spare no suspect whatever his party affiliation,” said a senior NAB official.
A security official was even more forthcoming. “A contingency plan is already in place to go after the activists of the militant banned outfits. Soon action will start against them,” he said.
Published in Dawn, February 19th, 2016