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Ashwani Kumar, Pawan Bansal: All the PM's men are falling

Forget the big scams like 2G, Coalgate and CWG. It is now the not-so-big scams that expose the stinking underbelly of uncontrolled corruption in India, and the Congress-led UPA is right in the middle of it all. Once again.

Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal. PTI

Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal. PTI

Outwardly, it seems like loose-change corruption, about promotion and posting. Unfortunately for the UPA, this scandal is not about a routine transfer and posting and the needle of suspicion points to another Congress politician, Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal, whose nephew V Singla was arrested by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) yesterday, allegedly for arranging a good posting for Mahesh Kumar, a General Manager of Western Railway. Kumar was made Railway Board member (Staff) only two days ago.

With this scandal surfacing, two of the ministers who are said to owe their ministerial elevations to Manmohan Singh directly – Law Minister Ashwani Kumar and Bansal – are now directly in the line of fire.

Bansal’s nephew Singla was arrested in Chandigarh for allegedly accepting a “bribe” of Rs 90 lakh from one Manjunath, who is alleged to be a middleman for Mahesh Kumar. The full bribe was reportedly Rs 2 crore, to be paid in instalments. Mahesh Kumar has also been arrested.

While Bansal has distanced himself from his nephew, saying he “had no knowledge or clue” about Singla’s actions, the issue throws the spotlight back on corruption in the UPA and the underlying systemic issue.

There are more questions than answers:

* If Rs 2 crore was the price for obtaining a “lucrative” posting, what would be the real potential for underhand earnings from such postings?

* If relatives can influence such postings, can the family’s role be presumed to only be that of a middleman, or is more corruption involved?

* Can the money-making exercise just be limited to transfers and postings? How could the minister claim total ignorance of such dealings?

While Bansal has rightly been lauded for putting railway finances back on track and related reforms, it appears that the old system – of making money from every change – continues intact. A railways with more money to spend means more opportunities for milking new contracts and decisions.

As expected, Bansal has issued a statement that is normal in such accusations. “Regarding yesterday's incident involving my sister's son in a CBI raid in Chandigarh, I have to say that I had no knowledge or clue about the matter at all. Though a close relative, he or any other relative of mine does not and cannot meddle in my official functions or influence my decisions. There is also no business relationship between his and my family. I have always observed the highest standards of probity in public life and look forward to an expeditious investigation by CBI in the matter."

The BJP cannot thank its stars enough. Even as it waits for what it hopes will be an embarrassing Supreme Court order against the Law Minister and the PMO, who asked to see the CBI’s status report on the coal blocks allocation scam and even asked for changes to be incorporated, the arrest of Bansal’s nephew is another political bounty.

The party went all out demanding Bansal’s resignation and prosecution. It has gone one step further and accused Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of reducing “the UPA to a government of middlemen, wheelers and dealers where ever decision is tradable.”

The BJP’s deputy leader in the Rajya Sabha, Ravi Shankar Prasad, called it a “copybook case” of corruption, and alleged that this was happening because the Prime Minister himself was “under a serious cloud in Coalgate. Railgate has further strengthened our position that the Prime Minister must quit.” He ridiculed Bansal’s statement that there was “no business relationship” between his nephew and himself.

Railgate, as the opposition is calling this scandal, could not have come for the Congress at a worse time when it is already facing tremendous heat on Coalgate and the JPC’s draft report on 2G. It was only six months ago that the Congress celebrated the return of the railway ministry to the party after a gap of 17 years.

In last October’s Cabinet reshuffle, there were only two surprise picks - Ashwini Kumar as Law Minister and Pawan Kumar Bansal as Railway Minister. It was a massive promotion for Ashwini Kumar, considered to be close to Manmohan Singh and his household. The railway ministry has, by convention, gone to political heavyweights. Thus, Pawan Bansal’s elevation raised many eyebrows.

Bansal had been in the good books of both Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi. It was believed that after Mamata Banerjee’s exit from the railway ministry, the Congress wanted the ministry to be run professionally as per the guidelines of the PMO and the finance ministry. This required a lightweight at the helm.

The turn of events in April-May show both Kumar and Basal landing themselves in the soup, further worsening public perceptions against the ruling Congress. The party has so far not reacted to the charges against Bansal. It is perhaps waiting to see if any further evidence unfolds. But his position has become untenable at Rail Bhavan.

Ashwini Kumar’s half-baked explanations on Coalgate have not cut much ice with other party leaders. His position has worsened as CBI Director Ranjit Sinha contradicted him in an interview when he disclosed that he was summoned by the Law Minister to discuss Coalgate. Solicitor General Mohan Parasaran confirmed that Kumar’s decision was improper.

A senior railway ministry official told Firstpost that the exit of Trinamool and the entry of the Congress has seen a deterioration. “Money has made clearer inroads at Rail Bhavan. The footprints can be seen at various places.” He said Vijay Singla was no stranger to senior officers of the ministry. “Why should there be bargaining that in addition to being member (staff), Mahesh Kumar (the newly appointed and arrested member of the Railway Board) should continue to be in additional charge of the prosperous and vitally significant Western Zone?”

As Member (Staff), Mahesh Kumar, besides being an influential voice in the Railway Board, would have had direct control over Personnel, Railway Protection Force, Vigilance, Recruitment, Medical and so on.

A signals and telecommunications service officer, Kumar still has two years to go and would have been a clear claimant to chairmanship of the board. Rail ministry officials, however, see the CBI move against Bansal’s nephew as a case in which it can establish its own neutrality and independence from government.

But it can come as no consolation for the UPA. It’s public perception has just sunk lower – something that didn’t seem possible earlier.

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