NAB wheat scam case can upset political fortunes

What is the plot behind the retired General-led National Accountability Bureau’s decision to pursue massive corruption in the free flour scheme in Punjab. Could this be an Army way to keep the PMLN on the ropes? A whiff of corruption in this scheme will smear the current Prime Minister, Shehbaz Sharif.

This is where it gets more complicated. The allegation of corruption was made months ago by a former Prime Minister and leader of PMLN, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. He alleged corruption to the tune of Rs20b in the Prime Minister’s scheme of supplying free flour to the poor. The Shehbaz Sharif government denied the allegation. But now that the NAB has decided to probe deeper into allegations, it could mean more than corruption is involved as the country is expected to go to elections later this year.

The country has been struggling with a wheat flour crisis over the past few years, more seriously in the last one year. It is a personal scheme of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif whose personal integrity and reputation could be hit hard even at a hint of corruption, especially so close to the election.

The NAB has so far flagged some issues that need closer scrutiny. From the records received from deputy commissioners, food department and the Punjab Information Technology Board, the agency has discovered a massive mismatch between data acquired from district administration and flour mills. About five million bags of wheat flour are missing.

The missing wheat flour bags have been a serious problem in Pakistan in recent years, especially when there has been a severe availability crisis. Three years ago, for instance, the NAB discovered a wheat theft of Rs 15.85 billion in Sindh alone. A few months ago,the NAB had found that from a million bags procured only 61000 bags could be found from a government warehouse in Sindh.

This year, the crisis had been more severe with several people dying in the queues or trying to access wheat bags from government stores. Hundreds and thousands of bags were sold in the blackmarket with flour mill owners, government officials and politicians working hand in glove across Pakistan. The country is still to emerge from the wheat crisis. According to the UN and FAO, Pakistan is likely to witness another round of food crisis later this year.

But the key issue in the missing wheat flour bags is not people going hungry but which political party will take the blame if the NAB investigations come out with the truth. By focussing on Punjab, the intention is to manipulate the

electoral outcome. Of the total 336 seats in the National Assembly, Punjab has

173. The province will witness a pitched battle among PMLN, PTI, PPP, TLP, PTI-P and IPP. The elephant in the room is the Pakistan Army. Even a small weight of allegation can upset the political fortunes of stalwarts, especially when the fight will be more cut-throat than in the past, even within some of the main parties. The retired General-led NAB, which is already spearheading the Toshakhana case against PTI leader Imran Khan and his wife, might easily keep the PMLN on the hook over the wheat scam in Punjab.