Prime minister's political cameo stuns Pakistan

The line between politics and sport — cricket, in particular, which enjoys the status of a near second religion in Pakistan — has long been blurred.

But even by Pakistani standards, last week Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif left the nation stunned by controversially —  and decidedly, politically — removing Zaka Ashraf, the recently court-restored chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), and replacing him yet again with popular TV anchor and veteran journalist NajamSethi.

Sethi's second comeback to the office less than a month after being shown the door by a court verdict is set against feverish allegations of poll fixing when he presided over the interim provincial government of Punjab, purporting to have helped Sharif's now ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) to have romped home in last May's election.

The replaced Ashraf is a close aide of Sharif's arch-rival, Pakistan People's Party leader and last president Asif Zardari. The move represents, in classic terms, what is — and long has been — the malaise afflicting the game in Pakistan which an average citizen holds dearer than most mundane things in life: power politics.

Ashraf was appointed in 2011 by Zardari, who was the patron-in-chief of the PCB, to replace Ijaz Butt — a relative of the-then Federal Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar. As well as Ashraf, Mukhtar is also a close aide of the PPP leader.

The patron's power of nominating the PCB chief has since passed over from the president to the prime minister under the new PCB constitution. The interesting thing is that technically, the patron was not empowered under the constitution to remove Ashraf because there was no clear route except to supersede the Board in case of "grave financial irregularities".

The PM sacked Ashraf using an amended clause to suggest the board was not being run in accordance with the constitution. It's a cinch that Ashraf did not stand a chance to continue after it became increasingly evident that he did not enjoy the support of the PML-N government.

As PCB chief, Ashraf had already been at odds in the past with the provincial government of Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, the prime minister's brother.

The prime minister ignored Ashraf's repeated requests for a meeting to seek policy direction on the eve of the power-defining International Cricket Council summit in Singapore where Pakistan was eventually isolated despite its principled opposition.

The PML-N government had, in fact, gone into appeal with the Supreme Court last month against the decision of the Islamabad High Court (IHC) to restore Ashraf after the IHC suspended him in response to a petition citing that he had not followed due procedures in his 'election' as the PCB chief.

Ashraf had swiftly moved to get himself 'elected' by the PCB governing board just before the national elections in May, sensing that the ruling PPP would be voted out.

The PM, upon assuming power last June, appointed Najam Sethi as the interim PCB chief, but whose powers were subsequently curtailed by the IHC pending new elections, which the same court had ordered Sethi to hold by October 18 last year.

However, the court restored Ashraf nearly three months later after giving Sethi more time during which the directives were still not complied with.

After filing an appeal against Ashraf's reinstatement in the apex court, the PML-N government briefly withdrew it on the eve of the Singapore meeting of the ICC, which in hindsight, appears to have been mala fide.

This brings us to the sensational claims doing the rounds in Pakistan over "35 punctures" — an oblique reference to the fixing of 35 National Assembly seat results that claimants allege Sethi delivered using his administrative muscle as interim chief minister to help the PML-N make a crucial difference in last May's election.

Debate in prime time talk shows — the staple diet of the viewing public — continues to centre on the motive behind Sethi's return to the hot seat, but one that is still coveted and remains hugely attractive to aspirants given the pull of the game.

A clutch of hosts have claimed hearing the audio tape in which allegedly Sethi can be heard talking about "35 punctures". He is alleged to be talking to the top PML-N leader — the inference being that the needful (fixing 35 seats) had been done.

Imran Khan, a cricket legend and chairman of the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, flayed the move to reappoint Sethi and insinuated after a hearing at the Supreme Court into his party's petition for thumb verification of ballots cast in last year's election that the PCB chairmanship was a reward for fixing the polls in favour of PML-N.

The writer is a freelance contributor based in Islamabad. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman


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