Bansal sacked, if Ashwani is next, what about PM?

Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal finally gets the boot from the Union cabinet. The big question is what happens to the fate of Law Minister Ashwani Kumar and then how Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is going to tackle the heat that the opposition is mounting afresh on him.

The turn of events suggest that a mere shifting of portfolio for Ashwani Kumar, as the prime minister has lately been insisting would not be enough not just for the opposition but also for an influential section of the Congress party. But if Ashwani Kumar goes, the prime minister would come in direct line of fire in the ongoing Coalgate investigation. After all, the Supreme Court’s indictment has been rather harsh on the two joint secretaries of the Prime Minister’s Office and Coal ministry for changing the heart of the status report and ostensibly carrying the status report with them for changes to be made by the higher ups over the night and return with amendments next day to the CBI.

Former railway minister Pawan Kumar Bansal. Image courtesy PIB

Former railway minister Pawan Kumar Bansal. Image courtesy PIB

After having messed it up completely to give an impression that the mighty Congress party was not acting under pressure from the opposition, Sonia Gandhi drove to the Prime Minister’s residence at the 7 Race Course Road to take the final call on the longevity of these ministers. Sources say even as the prime minister had earlier publicly taken a position on Ashwani Kumar overruling his resignation and so far stood by him against all mounting odds, Ashwani Kumar’s position has become increasingly untenable after a series of adverse observations made by the Supreme Court and by an unrelenting opposition.

A decision on Bansal’s fate was much easier given the fact that there was transfer and recovery of cash from his nephew Vijay Singla residence and a series of subsequent uncomfortable revelations by the media on his family riches and extent of nepotism practiced by him. But then there are some conspiracy theories doing the round in power corridors, something that could not be substantiated yet appear to be valid under the circumstances. Given the past record that the CBI has, something aptly summarized by the Supreme Court on Wednesday that, it is a "caged parrot speaking in master's voice...it's a sordid saga that there are many masters and one parrot", a question is being asked who was the master the master this time forcing the CBI to act against the Railway Minister Pawan Bansal.

The suggestion is that the CBI couldn’t have acted on its own against some one as high as him and while it was tracking the leads it always knew on whom it was laying its hands on. In that case he fallen prey, rightly or wrongly, to the power struggle of some higher ups within the ruling Congress. That was done with a purpose to corner the prime minister who had recently indicated of keeping his hopes alive for the third term, at least by making that statement he was trying to convey the message that he was not willing to become a lame duck prime minister yet. Both Bansal and Ashwani Kumar, the two relative lightweights had been his personal choice for two heavyweight ministries, railways and Law. If Sonia Gandhi is said to be unhappy over the delay in removing the two ministers, Manmohan Singh too is said to be not been happy either over the pressure mounted on him.

Added to that is the reports that some younger junior ministers wrote to Sonia Gandhi asking her to intervene to salvage the damage. It’s a well known fact that none of the younger ministers owe allegiance to the Prime Minister.

There are others who offer counter to this conspiracy theory and give the credit or place the onus on CBI officials including the director Ranjit Sinha for finally gathering the spine and it was their response to the frequent summoning and changes made to the status report and the flak that it received from the Supreme Court. While some say that it was an operation done by middle ranking officials concerned and informed the CBI Director of the move only after they asked the relevant stations to go for the kill on the penultimate day. There are still others who maintain that Ranjit Sinha having served as DG Railway Protection Force knew the kind of malice that plagued the railway ministry and acted on specific tip off when the time came.

Whatever and wherever the truth may lay, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s position had never been so vulnerable and his once Teflon coated image blotted with variety of spots. If the Congress strategists had delayed the decision making of removal of Bansal and Kumar, or either of them with a conviction that the party must not be seen to yielding to the Opposition pressure and chose its own timing to claim a moral high ground, it seriously erred on that count. The opposition is now claiming it their victory and now charging that the buck must stop only at the prime minister. For once, the BJP and the Left parties are speaking in one voice over the issue. Worse of all, no Congress leader has so far come forward to speak anything on record.

Till the prime minister mulls on his future action about his personal protégé Ashwani Kumar and himself, the CBI is preparing to question Pawan Kumar Bansal in rather hostile situations.

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