Sharifs’ problem not with NAB but its godfathers

February 23,2016

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Islamabad diary

The National Accountability Bureau the Sharifs could have for breakfast and leave no trace of it on their lips. NAB could never bother them in the past. How can it bother them when they are thrice-reborn lords of the heavy mandate?

NAB’s chairman, Qamar Zaman Ch, has throughout his long and successful career as a bureaucrat been the quintessential his master’s voice, always astutely aware of which way the wind was blowing. He was chosen as consensus candidate for this post precisely because of his ‘safe’ credentials. How can he turn into a problem for the Sharifs now? It’s not part of his DNA.

The problem lies elsewhere, in the military holdovers – the brigadiers and colonels – below the chairman who are not beholden to the Sharifs and who look elsewhere for inspiration and guidance. It is these busybodies who are calling in the tycoons and casting beady and searching eyes on their past cases – cases that the tycoons and seths could be forgiven for thinking no one would have the zeal or guts to reopen and look into closely. And it is these very military holdovers, not Qamar Zaman Ch, who are running a searching comb through old Sharif cases.

The Sharifs are entitled to our sympathy. Through the agencies of time, perseverance, good luck and past judicial benches more helpful than their own wet-nurses they have got rid of far more serious cases – cases which if even half decently pursued could have jeopardised their never-ending political careers. And here, after all these triumphs, some petty cases, not even worth their attention, are snapping at their heels…all because of some zealous colonels and brigadiers who look not to the Sharifs but to some other lodestar for inspiration.

And the lords of the mandate convinced that their worries were over after the Chief’s announcement that he would be walking into the sunset come November now discover to their dismay that their victory mood is being spoiled by this snapping at the heels. Hence the astonishing spectacle of the prime minister casting all restraint to the winds and lashing out at NAB in that most unlikely of places, Bahawalpur. The people of Bahawalpur may well ask: aaleeja, your highness, what is our fault, what have we to do with NAB and its mysterious workings?

The three loudest and most persistent loudspeakers in government service today are Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid and my dear friend Irfan Siddiqui, special adviser – would you believe it? – on historical research and archival material, etc, etc. The real force behind this government’s information management is of course fetching and bright Maryam Nawaz. But the loudspeakers out in front are the aforementioned knights of the holy order of the Sharifs. All three these past few days have had nothing but NAB on their minds. Given their loud outbursts even the politically innocent would be tempted to think that something was the matter.

What is it? What has cast a cloud over Jati Umra? Not the war in Yemen, not the fighting in Syria, not the bombings in Homs and Damascus…we can safely rule these out. The source of their anxiety sits nearer home and it has to do with their old bugbear, indeed now their only bugbear: the command headquarters of ‘national security’.

When the Chief announced that he would definitely quit this November you could almost hear the sigh of relief from the general direction of Raiwind. The Chief was their handpicked nominee. But, frankly, he had become a problem, if not an outright nuisance. His performance – Zarb-e-Azb, the turning of the tide in Karachi – was overshadowing the government’s performance and amongst the public at large he was being hailed as a hero and whatnot.

No one likes being upstaged, least of all thrice-reborn lords of the mandate. But when the Chief announced his lack of interest in any kind of extension you could make out the unspoken reaction from the PML-N corner: ‘good riddance’. The PML-N had had enough of him. The PPP of course could not see the last of him.

Gen Raheel Sharif should have acted as a lame-duck from that moment on. That was the role expected of him. But to the chagrin of the ruling party, especially its Jati Umra headquarters, he is not putting up his spurs. He is still conducting himself like an active chief and this is not going down well with the inheritors of the mandate.

We’ve seen accountability of sorts in action in Sindh. It has made Rais Zardari squeal and run for cover in Dubai. Ever since he threw the gauntlet down to the army with his famous remark ‘eent se eent baja den ge’ he has not thought it wise to return to Pakistan. Now accountability – again of sorts – is trying to open a Punjab chapter and even before anyone has been hurt or taken to task the Raiwinders have taken to mounting the housetops and crying foul murder.

As long as the PPP was the principal target of accountability it was all right with these champions. Now that they are getting indications that the heat may be coming their way – although no one is hundred percent sure that it really will – the anger, and the hidden fear, are spilling out into the open.

And to make it sound as if the higher national interest is somehow at stake a set of tycoons and seths is being paraded to demonstrate how NAB with its probing of innocents – yes, the seths in question are being portrayed as innocents, masoomeen – is imperilling the investment climate in the country. The seths are a decoy. The real concern, as always in politics, is self-preservation.

So the threat is being held out that if NAB does not behave the NAB law, the basis of its jurisdiction, will be amended. This is the real test. If NAB is really brought to heel and the colonels and brigadiers in it made toothless it will mean the mandate’s conquest of the last frontier.

There are two other sources of friction. The army, we are being given to understand, may be interested in turning its attention to southern Punjab, now one of the centres of ‘jihadi’ militancy. If anything like this happens it will puncture the diligently-nurtured perception that while there may be trouble elsewhere, all is well in the land of orange trains and metro buses.

There is also the question of the tribesmen made homeless by the army operations in the tribal agencies. The government has money for choice mega-projects but none for these internal refugees. If they are not cared for and rehabilitated by the time Gen Raheel is making his farewell calls later this year this will be a stain on his record. The war against ‘jihadi’ militancy can never be complete unless the displaced are returned to their homes.

And let’s not forget the question of the next army chief. Today’s army command is not any army command. It is a war-tested command which won’t take kindly to a Ziauddin Butt imposed upon it. Gen Raheel is going but, if my guess is correct, what he recommends, the names he puts up, will be crucial, and hard to ignore, when it comes to the selection of the next man expected to carry forward in the same spirit the hard work the army, and by extension the military, has done these past two years.



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