The arrest of PML(N) President and Leader of Opposition in the National Assembly Mian Shehbaz Sharif should have been an ordinary event, but was not. After all, though arrests are made every day, it was for the first time that a Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly was arrested by a civilian government. Leaders of the Opposition had been arrested before, but as part of a general round-up of politicians when the Army took over. This time round, Mian Shehbaz was arrested alone, and not by the Army, but by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). And it was not just under a civilian government, but by an independent government organisation, though it is also true that that government is supposedly beholden to the military for its position. Some have said that former COAS Gen Ashfaque Pervez Kiyani’s brother had an Ashiana contract cancelled, which was why Mian Shehbaz was arrested. True or not, the animus of the PML(N) towards the military can be judged.

One narrative of the incident holds that it is essentially the result of civil servants’ independence, and the rule of law, with NAB merely doing its duty by arresting Mian Shehbaz, and by refusing to acknowledge his position as Leader of the Opposition as providing him any protection from arrest. The PTI government says that it exerted no pressure to avoid the arrest, nor to have it made.

On the other hand, Mian Shehbaz is shouting out political victimisation. One possibility is that he might be right. After all, there is a long history of governments using official machinery to persecute political opponents, and the PML(N) cannot claim perfect innocence in this regard, as PPP leaders will testify. That Mian Shehbaz was arrested in the Ashiana-i-Iqbal case when he had gone down to NAB’s Lahore office to answer questions about the Saaf Pani Company has caused comment, as well as doubts about the motives behind the arrest. After all, Mian Shehbaz cannot be said to be avoiding arrest.

NAB would clearly like it to be thought that Mian Shehbaz’s arrest had nothing to do with politics. That would mean that NAB has been imbued with a new culture, for in origin it was used by the Musharraf regime, which founded it, to persecute political rivals. It went into a lower profile after that, to the extent that the Supreme Court found that it could not use it to investigate the Panamagate scandal, though it did appoint a NAB representative to the JIT it set up for this. The NAB Court made a conviction on the NAB reference following the Supreme Court judgement in that case, but that conviction seems to be in difficulty after the convicts obtained bail from the Islamabad High Court.

Indeed, that bail was one of the two major political developments that are being mentioned as providing a motive for the arrest. The bail of Mian Nawaz Sharif, his daughter Maryam Nawaz and son-in-law Capt (retd) Safdar, meant that the PML(N) Quaid had been released. Mian Shehbaz was his successor as party President, and for him Mian Nawaz’s release was a great source of strength. It should not be forgotten that Mian Nawaz is still the face of the party. In his absence, Mian Shehbaz began facing problems in retaining loyalties. Similarly, his arrest means that Mian Nawaz is also weakened. Not only is the legal head of his party off the scene, but perhaps his most trustworthy adviser is not available to him now.

Also not available to the party as a whole the campaigner for the October 14 by-elections to the 35 seats, 11 national and 24 provincial, which have been vacated by multiple-seat winners in the general election. As has been pointed out often enough, the general election was itself preceded by the arrest of the party chief. This is supposed by PML(N) supporters to show that there is an attempt by the PTI’s military backers to give it an election victory. This is what happened in the general election, and is expected to happen in the by-elections. The PML(N) has vacated very few of the seats, and it was not likely to win over any of the seats the PTI vacated. Indeed, the PTI provincial governments should ensure that any PML(N) seats are won by the party.

Mian Shehbaz’s arrest cannot be attributed to a desire to ensure such results, because the PTI has a comfortable majority wherever it has taken office, and even if it lost all seats, its governments would not be threatened anywhere.

More likely is that this is a reply to former Punjab Minister Rana Mashhood Ahmad Khan, whose statement that Mian Shehbaz had mended the fences with the military was so strenuously denied. The response could either have come from the government itself, reflecting therein the fear of its senior figures that Mian Shehbaz was finding himself back in the good graces of the military. It should not be forgotten that Mian Nawaz, and thus Mian Shehbaz, were initially backed by the military until they established an independent political existence independent of their backers. Either the PTI’s backers are trying to show to the PTI that they remain loyal, or the PTI is trying to eliminate Mian Shehbaz before he supplants it.

It cannot have been helpful to Mian Shehbaz that the Opposition wanted him to chair the Public Accounts Committee. The PTI did not, because he was the brother of the head of government whose actions the PAC would consider. The tradition of the Leader of the Opposition chairing the PAC has not really caught on in the National Assembly, being essentially an import from the Punjab Assembly. The National Assembly tradition is of the Leader of the Opposition chairing whichever committee he or she is a member of, and membership is by choice.

The arrest can be seen as an attempt by the PTI to burnish its anti-corruption credentials. If Mian Nawaz is acquitted, then Mian Shehbaz must be shown a villain, or the PTI election win will have proved pointless.

Taken with the Federal Cabinet expansion the same day, the arrest would show that the PTI is falling into the ways of its predecessors–including the PML(N). The problem that all governments face is that of simultaneously handling their opposition and their own parliamentary party. The opposition is managed by throwing the fear of God into it, by repression, arrests and the use of the police force, such that opposition members count a night spent unarrested a blessing. The parliamentary party is kept united by the hope of promotion, and there are continual inductions into the Cabinet. The Cabinet has not reached the upper limit specified in the Constitution, which implies that there could be further expansions. Even if there are not, the hope that there could be will always be an incentive to stay in line. In a party like the PTI, that means hopefuls will vie to catch the leader’s eye and earn his goodwill.

The PTI thus finds itself faced with a problem. The party was elected on a platform of change, raising expectations that it would do things differently. It even laid out a 100-day manifesto. If at the end of 100 days it merely joins the ranks of traditional parties, it runs the risk of disappointing its voters. At least the PML(N) never pretended to be anything other than a party of power, which hugged its friends close, and its opponents even closer.

The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.

NAB would clearly like it to be thought that Mian Shehbaz’s arrest had nothing to do with politics.