It seems that spring has arrived, though the occasional gusts of winter winds continue to remind us that the worst is not yet over. Not for former president Asif Ali Zardari and his sister Faryal Talpur for sure. And now, the young chairman of Pakistan People’s Party, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, has also been dragged into this investigation. Despite their objections, their case has been transferred to a Rawalpindi accountability court.
The PPP leaders and their counsels have long held the view that since the entire case, its investigation, and all parties into the allegations belong to Sindh – where accountability courts also exist – there is no point in transferring the cases to Rawalpindi. The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) takes advantage of the Supreme Court’s observation favouring the change of trial venue, while the PPP insists that if the Sindh government could not influence the investigation by FIA, how could it influence the courts? The party also alleges that shifting of the venue has something to do with a grand plan to paralyse the government in Sindh and eventually replace it through backdoor deals reminiscent of Jam Sadiq’s era.
Bilawal Bhutto is agitated over the fact that despite former chief justice Saqib Nisar’s observations in the open court questioning why his name had been included by the JIT and why he had been put on the notorious Exit Control List, the detailed order afterwards did not reflect the same spirit. Now, Bilawal is being questioned by the NAB.
Bilawal upped the ante when he went to Kot Lakhpat Jail to meet former prime minister Nawaz Sharif on March 11 to break the ice between both parties with ruptured ties since June 2015. He has been hitting the PTI government hard inside and outside the parliament recently. He took Finance Minister Asad Umar heads on in the parliament over the PTI’s economic policies and the implementation of the National Action Plan. Then, the young leader, flanked by PPP leader Syed Qaim Ali Shah in Karachi, spent over two hours blasting the PTI government in a press conference.
On Wednesday, Bilawal and his father appeared before the NAB investigators in Islamabad and brought in hundreds of party activists for a show of strength. As he exited the NAB building, Bilawal hit out at the bureau once more, reminding all and sundry how the outfit was used to break the PPP by creating PPP Patriots and co-opting N-Leaguers by creating PML-Q in 2002. Bilawal also admitted the failure of both the PPP and the PML-N for not reforming the accountability mechanism and pledged to remove all relics of authoritarian regimes when they return to power next.
The PPP leaders believe that the pressure on them is partly because of the position they took on December 27 regarding the extension of military courts. The party decided not to support the second extension of the military courts. The party leadership, especially Bilawal, has been quite vocal about the matter. PPP leaders also say the tightening of the screws has much to do with the federal government trying to gulp down the provincial share of funds guaranteed through the 18th Amendment as the financial conditions continue to worsen.
Now the PTI government has invited all parliamentary party leaders next week, on March 28, to discuss the issues related to the implementation of the National Action Plan. Many in the PPP and the PML-N believe the meeting has actually been called to sway them in favour of supporting the extension of the military courts for another two years.
On Wednesday, the opposition declined to attend the meeting on March 28 and asked the PTI leadership to bring in these issues to the parliament instead of calling in-camera meetings of leaders of the parties. The opposition also attacked the government for violating Article 213 of the Constitution in filling the vacant seats of the Election Commission of Pakistan.
Unlike the PML-N, which easily persuaded the parties in 2017, the PTI is finding it very difficult to persuade both opposition parties. Most PTI leaders, Prime Minister Imran Khan included, keep bombarding the opposition on a daily basis. There was ceasefire in February during the escalation of tensions with India but as soon as the crisis was over, the PTI went back to its old ways of cockfights with the opposition. Given this situation, the only heavy-lifting on the extension of the military courts can only be done by the miltablishment.
The PML-N leadership is not happy because Nawaz Sharif’s health is deteriorating and he is not getting any relief. Since last week, family members who were earlier allowed to see him any day have been restrained to see him only on Thursdays.
On Monday, a Supreme Court bench heard Sharif’s bail petition on medical grounds but after an entire day of deliberation, the hearing was put off till next week. The PML-N leadership is divided over the issue of the extension of the military courts. Shehbaz Sharif had earlier supported the extension but he was criticised from within the party over his attitude towards the miltablishment. Some PML-N leaders told this scribe that with some guarantees they may support the extension of the courts for a year. But only if they get some relief.
So far, the winter has been far too cold in the valley of Margallas, bringing hailstorms of political hardships. Let us hope April brings some warmth and sunshine.