The top leadership of the ruling Congress party does not think that there is any moral or criminal culpability of Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal in the bribery case involving his nephew Vijay Singla.
The high powered Congress core group that includes party President Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh deliberated on the issue for over an hour-and-half and decided to buy time – Bansal is innocent till more evidence against him tumbles out, at least in the public domain.
A hint of what transpited in the core group meeting late this evening came in the afternoon when after Bansal met the Prime Minister, Congress general secretary and head of media cell, Janardan Dwivedi strongly backed the railway minister and ridiculed the BJP for asking that he resign. “Railway minister has explained his position. Those asking for his resignation are inflicted with the disease of seeking resignation”. Another Congress party spokesman Rashid Alvi was equally dismissive of the opposition's demand.
The Congress does not want to be seen bowing to Opposition pressure and thereby start a spiral of resignations begining with the removal of Bansal from the cabinet.
If Bansal goes then Ashwini Kumar’s position becomes untenable and if Kumar also goes then the opposition will set up its pressure on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s resignation. The Congress thinks that Bansal’s resignation would amount to prima facie admission of guilt and the ruling party wants to give an impression that the Opposition was being obscurantist and obstructionist, putting unnecessary hindrances in the 'good governance' that the UPA was trying to give in an election year.
The BJP was quick to take advantage of the situation. Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha and senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley called the UPA a 'cash and carry' government. His deputy in Parliament Ravi Shankar Prasad had earlier said that it had turned to be 'a government of middlemen, wheelers and dealers.' Jaitley raised the question - could Singla have taken bribe on his own for a secretary rank appointment?
Incidentally, Congress leader from West Bengal and Minister of State in the Railway ministry Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury admitted that there was rampant corruption in the Railways and the new dispensation led by his party was fixing it.
But would the appointment of Mahesh Kumar, who himself was willing to pay up to Rs 10 crore for his promotion to the Ralway Board, would have helped in rooting out corruption? It should be noted that Mahesh Kumar, now under CBI custody, would have been chief of vigilance in the railway. Ironically, entrusted to see that there were no corrupt practices in the ministry.
Senior Railway Minister officials agree both with Jaitley and Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury. While explaining the situation in the ministry, a senior official raised crucial points:
* Would anyone pay Rs two crore to Singla for a promotion that too for a Member of the Board if his Mama (maternal uncle) was not railway minister?
* Would the bribe giver Mahesh Kumar, GM, Western Railways not have done his due diligence of Singla’s access and command to the Railway Minister?
*Singla could not have proceeded with the deal if his uncle Bansal had not signed on Kumar’s promotion file and pushed it to the Cabinet Committee of Appointment.
* Bansal surely knew what kind of lobbying goes on in the railways for a position in Railway Board.
* If his nephew was not taking money on his (Bansal’s) behalf, he was certainly taking it in his name and the rail minister can’t get away by saying that he had no business association with his nephew’s family.
According to sources in the know, Mahesh Kumar’s appointment as member Staff was only the beginning. The actual deal between Mahesh Kumar and Bansal’s nephew was to somehow make him Member (Electrical) in the Railway Board when the vacancy for the said post would arise in June end.
The incumbent Member (Electrical) Kulbhushan has been named to take over as the next Chairman of Railway Board when Vinay Mittal retires on 30 June.
Kumar a Signal and Telecommunication cadre officer could not directly have become Member (Electrical), so an alibi was found that he should be appointed Member (staff) relatively less lucrative post for now and later given a horizontal shift.
The idea would have worked, say CBI and Railway ministry officials. The two crore payment (seized 90 lakh was one installment) was to facilitate another bargain that Mahesh Kumar would retain charge of GM, Western Railways, besides being Member (Staff) in the Railway Board. There are no conjectures to that because the order for the current part of the deal was already out. The next installment would have come in June end, if CBI had not tapped their phone calls.
The Congress leadership apparently stands by the innocence of Basal because recovery of 90 lakh from his nephew was still a 'small amount'.
Remember what steel minister Beni Prasad Verma had earlier said? “Rs 71 lakh was a small amount for a central minister.”