Shahbaz’s escape

Jun 04 2020


THE decision of the Lahore High Court on Wednesday to grant former chief minister Shahbaz Sharif pre-arrest bail capped the latest upheaval in NAB’s avowed drive to punish the corrupt and the Sharif family saga. Mr Sharif has now been asked to appear before NAB on June 9 after Tuesday’s high drama which had reduced the official raiders looking for Mr Sharif to a role not quite commensurate with their status or mandate. The PML-N leader had been summoned by NAB officials in Lahore on the day. Instead, he chose to write a letter, introducing himself as a 69-year-old man with reasons to be wary of gatherings during the Covid-19 pandemic. The NAB premises were risky, and on the strength of some unspecified news reports, the letter claimed that certain personnel had contracted the virus. Having registered its reservations, it appears that the PML-N was correct in expecting NAB teams to launch their ‘find Shahbaz’ operation. The first and most prominent raid was made on the old Sharif residence in Model Town, which was reportedly followed by more searches in other places in the city. They all drew a blank. Mr Sharif had disappeared.

Not that this operation came out of the blue. Some politicians had been predicting that Mr Sharif was on schedule to land in the NAB lockup soon after Eid. Clearly, the PML-N was prepared for that moment when the law came literally knocking on their leader’s door. NAB, which has been projected by the government cheerleaders as in the mood to catch and grill big fish, was ultimately found wanting. Government spokespersons and sundry PTI supporters constantly swear by NAB’s autonomous and fully empowered status. But this incident hardly painted a pretty picture of the highly hailed accountability officials, who made such a mess of locating and taking into custody a man whose whereabouts in the city from where he drew power have been so meticulously documented. One explanation is that it’s not easy to find Shahbaz Sharif or any of his family members whom the city of Lahore has taken under its protective wings — a line which should be officially shunned since it would be a perfect conclusion for PML-N supporters. A better official strategy would be to blame it on human error and the laxity of the raiders.

It has been suggested that Mr Sharif emerged from the episode as a fainthearted leader. But while one can argue that the principled position would have been to face the law, no matter how tarnished NAB’s reputation, this would go against the tenets of Mr Sharif’s own political philosophy. The former chief minister is here to avoid arrest, perhaps to cut a deal. He avoids and evades; it is up to the other plank of the party to decide when it is absolutely necessary to resist and to be seen to be doing so.

Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2020