A predictable clash

Updated 12 Aug 2020


THE clash between Punjab police and PML-N supporters in front of the National Accountability Bureau’s office in Lahore was avoidable. NAB had summoned Maryam Nawaz Sharif to appear before investigators in order to answer questions regarding ‘illegal’ acquisition of land in Raiwind.

The PML-N continues to emphasise that NAB cases against the party leadership are all politically motivated. NAB for its part has not stepped back from aggressively pursuing cases against many key leaders of the party. The situation on Monday was, therefore, ripe for a confrontation.

Ms Nawaz’s decision to reach the bureau’s offices accompanied by a large number of supporters was aimed at flexing political muscles at a time when the opposition was beginning to be seen as relatively passive. However, the behaviour of the police — which had been deployed in significant numbers armed with riot gear — further inflamed the tense situation.

Video clips shared widely on social media show scenes of violence including the police hurling stones at the vehicles of PML-N leaders. The windscreen of Ms Nawaz’s jeep was also damaged in the fracas. The police tear-gassing and baton charge forced NAB authorities to postpone the summons but the PML-N leader insisted in front of the media that she would stay till she had recorded her statement. Saner minds prevailed in the end and she left the venue.

The police, however, arrested a number of PML-N supporters, many of whom had received injuries during the clash. The unfortunate incident once again highlighted that NAB’s summoning of high-profile politicians is usually grounded more in optics than in substance.

Over the last few years, dozens of politicians — an overwhelming majority belonging to the opposition — have been called for investigations, and also detained on flimsy grounds, without NAB producing any convincing case against them. Such tactics may have ensured headlines for NAB but have not led to convictions and sentences. By now, NAB authorities should have realised that the success of their performance lies less in sending high visibility summons and arrests and more in building up a case that can stand up in a court of law.

The PML-N should also keep in mind that legal procedures should not be undercut for political gains. Although Ms Nawaz’s defiant actions on Tuesday may have charged up the party’s base, they have also contributed to politicising a valid procedural requirement from the investigating agency. For Ms Nawaz, however, the situation presented an opportunity to break her long silence and reappear in public to reinforce her defiant message.

Her press conference later confirmed that her narrative has not softened. This may be a message meant both for her adversaries as well as her supporters. If the PML-N is planning to dial up pressure by getting Maryam Nawaz to return to a public role then politics is about to heat up. The fate of the opposition’s multiparty conference, however, remains unclear.

Published in Dawn, August 12th, 2020