Amid the country’s struggles against the coronavirus, the NAB continuing pursuit of key opposition leaders is worrying some watchers. Most recently, the Bureau’s staff in Lahore tried to pick up PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif from his house in Model Town, but left empty-handed. Shehbaz had missed another hearing of the money laundering and assets beyond means cases against him. While there was no Shehbaz to greet the NAB officials, there were dozens of PML-N workers and media personnel, who were stopped from approaching by the police that was clearly dressed for a fight. Fortunately, it never happened. And the following day, Shehbaz secured a bail from the high court before he could be taken in custody by the NAB personnel present there.
Let’s not debate the charges against the Leader of the Opposition here, but it is worth noting that he did not simply fail to show up. He had made it known to NAB and the court that he was unwell, and that due to his preexisting health conditions, he was also highly susceptible to the coronavirus. “It has been widely reported in the media that some NAB officials have tested positive for Covid-19,” Shehbaz had told NAB in a letter. He had also offered to be interrogated via Skype.
Unsurprisingly — and perhaps accurately — the PML-N immediately pointed to the same coronavirus outbreak as being why NAB was insistent on making Shehbaz appear in person. They accused the PTI of using the case to distract from its mismanaged pandemic response, and the sugar scam in which key PTI leaders and allies were named. The PML-N is also claiming that the government is pushing NAB to prosecute Shehbaz so that he cannot attend budget sessions.
The PTI could have countered well; after all, one of NAB’s charges against Sharif did relate to a sugar mill. An eloquent speaker could well have done the job. But perhaps, it is another reminder that the ruling party appears to lack the parts that move the wheels of government.
Asad Umar should be writing his resignation. After all, in 2017, he promised that if the employees of Pakistan Steel Mills (PSM) did not get their rights in a future PTI government, he would stand with the mill’s workers and not his party. In November 2018, he promised that a PSM revival plan would be presented within a few weeks, and the state-owned entity would be successfully made operational again. Weeks became months, but no plan was forthcoming. However, caveats were slowly added, like trying to convince people that privatising the loss-making mill would be a good thing, even though the PTI opposed this tooth and nail while in the opposition.
And when we finally saw the plan, it was to sack all the employees with all due earned benefits and one month of severance pay. But Umar, the Planning Minister, was only following the lead from his boss, Prime Minister Imran Khan, who had promised for years that if elected, he would not privatise PSM but would make it profitable. Imran said in 2016 that all that was needed for this was good management. But after almost two years in power, Prime Minister Imran seems to have been unable to find a single qualified person to run the mill.
On Thursday, the government had Industries Minister Hammad Azhar go out and telling the mill workers that being fired is a good thing for them because they could go and find work elsewhere instead of sitting idle. Granted, under normal circumstances, this might be a good advice. But who is hiring right now? Has the minister forgotten that Pakistan is in the throes of an economic depression? Perhaps he should speak to the health minister.
On a serious note, sacking 9,350 people is difficult, but there is a strong argument that it was necessary. The problem is that the PTI refused to let others consider such a step and is now hoping people forget its own broken promises. No one can accuse the ruling party of breaking PSM. It was already a flaming mess when they took over. PTI’s guilt is that it kept claiming it can bring a dead horse back to life, then trying to do so for two years, and after finally accepting that it was dead, claiming that it had said so all along.