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And now Multangate

Ayaz Amir

How the seasons change. The woes of the Sharifs, already considerable, instead of lessening are on the rise, with the National Accountability Bureau on the verge of filing references against them as ordered by the Supreme Court. As if this was not enough a new scandal has emerged relating to the Multan Metro Bus.

That this project was a white elephant which the city of Multan did not need—its needs being altogether different—was known from day one. But that from it would emerge a scandal which could threaten the younger brother, the chief minister of Punjab who with his gift for hype and braggadocio likes calling himself chief servant of the province, is becoming apparent only now.

And just as Panamagate was not invented in Pakistan and was the brainchild of no military intelligence agency—from whose bosom we like to think most Pakistani conspiracies emerge—Multangate is also no Pakistani invention. It has come from the horse’s mouth so to speak, from the Chinese themselves who were into the building of this project and its financing.

There is a company listed on the Shenzhen stock exchange by the name of Jiangsu Yabaite Technology whose affairs attracted the attention of the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) because a sizeable amount of cash had flowed into its accounts, the sum being a bit over 17 million dollars. Questioned by the CSRC, Yabaite reportedly has said that this money had come from work on the Multan Metro Bus project.

CSRC passed this information on to the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP), the same SECP which has figured in the Panamagate probe for altering documents for the benefit of the Sharifs. The hero of the SECP saga as we know is Mr Zafar Hijazi, its chairman, about whom it has been said in sworn testimony that he had pressured his subordinates to do the required tampering for the benefit of the Sharifs.

Now when the allegation regarding the Multan Metro was brought to Mr Hijazi’s knowledge the matter rightly should have been turned over to the Federal Investigation Agency for proper investigation. But he kept the information to himself and one or two officers under him: the heads of the international and law departments of the SECP. Only now when the matter has come into the public domain with TV channels coming up with revelations relating to it, has the SECP chairman referred the matter, after seven months, to the FIA.

As far as we know, because the full details of what the CSRC has asked have not been revealed, there is no direct allegation against the Punjab chief minister. He is only supposed to have given a commendatory letter to the Chinese company, Yabaite Technology. On Tuesday, however, Shahbaz Sharif was all fire and fury, and injured pride, when he addressed a press conference in Lahore and attacked the TV channel in question alleging that it had attempted to malign him at the behest of elements working against him. He named no one but said these were big land-grabbers—what in the local lingo we call qabza groups—a charge which can fit no one and everyone in Pakistan.

Overall his performance was an exercise in hyper-fulmination. He looked agitated and tense and was always putting on and taking off his reading glasses, going so far in his excitement as to name the three journalists or anchors who do the particular programme on which the allegations relating to the Multan Metro were aired. And he went on and on, reciting poetry, raising his finger which is his trademark mannerism, thumping his chest and sounding indignant, hurt and patriotic all at the same time.

It was obvious he was protesting too much. He hurled accusations left and right but did not touch the core issue: the matter of the 17 million dollars which the Chinese regulators found in the books of Jiangsu Yaibate Technology. He said he had written no commendatory letter and that it was a forgery. If it could be proved that he had taken even a penny, what to talk of any larger sum, as a bribe or commission it would be, as the Urdu phrase goes, the nation’s hand and his neck.

There was no end to his excitement. At one point he said that even after his death if it was proved that he had taken even a penny in any deal his body should be dug up from the grave and hanged on a lamp post. All this and much more in the same vein but not once, as I say, did he come to the real issue: the 17 million dollars flowing into the coffers of the Chinese company. The press conference may have had its uses but the histrionics were unnecessary and gave the impression that he was agitated and nervous. Anyone watching this dramatic display would think the man had something to hide.

And the ex prime minister has gone to London to be with his ailing wife and of course he would be spending the Eid holidays there. He didn’t look too happy as he was walking to the aircraft. What was on his mind? There was another photo of him sitting inside the plane and in this he was the very picture of glumness. Who took the photo and who circulated it? It doesn’t show him in a flattering light.

And NAB cases are being readied and they should be filed not long after Eid. A hearing in the Lahore High Court is also coming up regarding the Model Town killings, the petitioners in this case praying for the Justice Baqar Najfi report to be made public. If this happens chances are the Punjab CM will come under more pressure.

In normal times the NA-120 by-election should have been a cakewalk for the PML-N. But it is turning into a tough fight. First they couldn’t decide whom to put up for this contest and then picked on Kalsoom Nawaz which again is a sign of weakness not strength because it betrays the thought that no lesser personality would do. Hamza Shahbaz was supposed to lead the campaigning but he’s gone off to London in a huff, as PML-N insiders are all too ready to reveal, because of the tensions within the family.

Shahbaz wanted to become prime minister and wasn’t too happy to see Shahid Khaqan chosen to fill the position. Then he was to become PML-N president but on that too, as insiders say, Nawaz Sharif was having second thoughts. That’s when Hamza Shahbaz flew off to London. (Now they say the decision has been taken to make Shahbaz PML-N president.) Maryam Safdar has had to step into the breach which only goes to show that the election is not proving a cakewalk. And the PTI candidate, Yasmeen Rashid, is a tough campaigner and a respected figure.

She got a respectable number of votes against Nawaz Sharif in 2013 and although this constituency has always been considered a PML-N stronghold Panamagate has seriously dented the Sharif reputation and it has also been an education for the average Pakistani who for more than a year, day in and day, out has been regaled with one tale after another of the various exploits of Pakistan’s longest-running ruling family. What effect will this have on the voters of NA-120? It won’t be long before we know the answer to this question.

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