In a surprising move, Shahbaz Sharif, the president of the Pakistan Muslim League ( Nawaz) and leader of the opposition, was arrested by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) on charges of corruption in relation to the Ashiana housing scheme.

It is pertinent to note that Shahbaz’s arrest was made just before the national by-elections. Shahbaz is accused of ordering the cancellation of the awarding of the housing project to a successful bidder, Chaudry Latif and Sons, and giving it instead to Lahore Casa Developers, a proxy of Paragon City Pvt Limited, which is said to be run by his close aide and former minister for railways Khawaja Saad Rafique. NAB has alleged that this decision to award the contract to another bidder resulted in the national exchequer losing RS193 million (US$1,55 million). However, Shahbaz’s lawyer, Amjad Pervaiz, told the court that Chaudry Latif is an absconder and that his company has been blacklisted, which he said was the reason the contract was canceled

After hearing the views of both NAB’s prosecutor and Pervaiz, the court remanded Shahbaz Sharif for 10 days in the NAB’s custody. Because Sharif is not only the president of the PML-N but also the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly of Pakistan, the NAB was legally required to inform the speaker of the National Assembly about the arrest in advance, but the procedure was not followed. The PMLN’s leaders are protesting against the arrest, calling it a fascistic move by the ruling Pakistan Tehreeke-Insaaf government.

Many in the PMLN ranks believe that Sharif was arrested in order to damage the party’s electoral campaign for the by-elections as winning by-elections, especially for Punjab assembly seats, can pave the way for the PMLN to overthrow the PTI provincial government and form its own administration. There are already reports of rifts within the PTI membership in Punjab and if the PMLN can manage to win a few seats in the by-elections, it will be in a very strong position to form its own government in Punjab. His arrest has also sent a clear message that the PMLN will not be given any political space by the invisible forces. Sharif was considered a pro-establishment leader in the PMLN who wanted to negotiate with the establishment instead of locking horns with it. His differences with his elder brother Nawaz Sharif and niece Maryam Nawaz were visible and he did not adopt their narrative in the general elections campaign.

The other surprising aspect is the silence of Nawaz and Maryam Sharif. Both father and daughter have not been indulging in any political activity or issuing any political statements since the time they were released by the Islamabad High court, which suspended the accountability court decision against them. Sharif only issued a brief statement on Shahbaz’s arrest and held Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government responsible for victimizing his younger brother. Unlike in the past, he did not criticize the role of the judiciary and the establishment in his brief statement. On the other hand, the arrest of Shahbaz is a very big blow to the already weakened PMLN, and if sources are correct, there are more party stalwarts who will be arrested in the days to come.

The arrest of Shahbaz is a very big blow to the already weakened PMLN, and if sources are correct, there are more party stalwarts who will be arrested in the days to come

Sharif has to resume his political activities as soon as possible if he wants to prevent his party from vanishing on the political horizon. There is no option left for him and Maryam Nawaz but to fight till the end. It is all about the question of whether to go down fighting or not fighting. Shahbaz’s pro-reconciliation political philosophy has failed miserably as it did not yield any significant results in the general elections or bridge the gap between the establishment and the PMLN.

As for accountability, it is a tool to victimize political opponents in Pakistan. The same kind of cases are pending against Imran Khan, Aleem Khan, Jahangir Tareen and many of the PTI stalwarts, but the NAB is not probing their cases any further, nor are the higher courts interested in taking action. Right now, the focus of the NAB and the courts seems to be the PMLN.

Khan’s failure to get immediate relief from Saudi Arabia and China have forced the country to ask for a bailout package from the International Monetary Fund. Getting a bailout package will mean price hikes and more indirect taxes on the masses, which will ultimately mean further devaluation of the Pakistani currency against the dollar. So the rhetoric of bringing back the looted money and the few arrests of opposition political leaders can only help the PTI government to divert the attention of the masses from the economic crisis. Its supporters will also be happy that  Khan is cracking down on corruption. However, General Pervez Musharaf, Adnan Kyani (the bother of ex-Army chief General Pervaiz Kayani), Malik Riaz, Aleem Khan Jahangir Tareen, and Rao Anwar will continue to enjoy the luxury of being above the law and roam freely.

A truly democratic government would not have arrested the opposition leader without concrete proof of wrongdoing, but since the Khan-led government was brought to power by hijacking the mandate, it really does not care about the embarrassment it has brought to Pakistan. The arrest of an opposition leader without solid evidence has not gone over well in the global community, which already sees the current democracy as highly flawed. It is time again for Sharif to try to mobilize his party through public gatherings as the Khan-led government has given him a golden opportunity to launch a massive protest movement against the victimization of his party and the government’s failure to come up with a solid plan to revive the economy.

The powerful forces pulling the strings from behind the curtains face tough times ahead if Sharif and Maryam both decide to fight instead of surrendering. Perhaps Shahbaz’s arrest is a blessing in disguise for the PMLN and the opposition. They can now jointly stage protests both inside and outside Parliament,  putting the PTI-led government and the invisible forces on the back foot.