While Ashwani Kumar may be shifted, Pawan Bansal is likely to be dropped

The Congress has always disliked being made to act under opposition pressure, but on Thursday the word emanating from the party was that it knew the cases of Union Ministers Ashwani Kumar and Pawan Kumar Bansal would have to be dealt with sooner rather than later: it was now “just a matter of time,” a senior party functionary said.

A day after the party swept the polls in Karnataka, and as the euphoria of victory died down, the top leadership focussed attention once again on the fates of the two Ministers, even as Mr. Kumar’s presence and Mr. Bansal’s absence at Thursday’s Cabinet meeting told its own story.

Sources in the party indicated that while Mr. Kumar might be given an honourable exit, merely being moved from the Law Ministry to another job in the Cabinet, Mr. Bansal may either be dropped in a “reshuffle” of portfolios or encouraged to resign.

The sources sought to make a distinction between the two men: while Mr. Kumar, they said, was merely “indiscreet” and committed an “act of impropriety” by vetting an affidavit in the coal scam case before it was submitted to the Supreme Court, Mr. Bansal’s case was more serious, as his nephew Vijay Singla was caught accepting a bribe from Mahesh Kumar, a member of the Railway Board, apparently to get him a better post.

If those close to Mr. Bansal had defended him saying that since the Railway Board member had not, in fact, got the job he wanted, there was no way to connect the bribe to the Minister, there is a growing view that once the CBI calls him in for questioning his position will become untenable.

Initially, the Congress believed it could brazen it out, saying that Mr. Kumar’s fate would depend on what the Supreme Court said on the CBI affidavit affair and Mr. Bansal’s future on the results of the investigation in the bribery case. But now that view is changing.

With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh not having acted as yet, the joke in party circles is that this is his “second Indo-U.S. nuclear deal.” But the fact is the party’s delay in taking action against the two Ministers — both considered close to Dr. Singh — is damaging both the party and the Prime Minister’s image.

The party sources added that if the momentum of the victory in Karnataka was to be sustained, then the matter of the two errant Ministers would have to be resolved quickly.

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