After brazening it out for as long it could, the Manmohan Singh government has finally bowed to the inevitable and sacked Pawan Kumar Bansal and Ashwani Kumar. The Railway Minister was on a sticky wicket over a serious bribery case involving a close relative, and the Law Minister had been pulled up by the highest court for interfering in a status report on coal block allotments due for presentation in court by the Central Bureau of Investigation. Mr. Bansal’s position had become completely untenable following disclosure that contrary to the Railway Minister’s own claim, he was possibly aware of how the bribery deal was clinched by his nephew, Vijay Singla. Mr. Bansal had stoutly defended himself when news first broke of Mr. Singla’s arrest by the CBI on charges of accepting a hefty bribe towards a promised appointment in the Railway Board. The minister insisted that he had no business relationship with Mr. Singla even as it emerged that the nephew was overseeing his constituency interests in Chandigarh. A photograph revealed Mr. Singla’s presence in Mr. Bansal’s office at the time the latter took charge as Railway Minister. As further details surfaced, things began to spiral out of control and soon there was no telling fact from fiction.
A tell-all tape in the possession of the CBI has been hinted at, and there are accusations that large loans were extended to the Bansal family by a public sector bank coinciding with Mr. Bansal’s earlier term as minister of state for finance. Mr. Kumar’s wrongdoing was of a different order and there were no personal or financial accusations against him. Yet what was passed off as a mere impropriety became indefensible after the Supreme Court took the view that the heart of the CBI’s report had been altered under the minister’s supervision. The court was also unsparing of the government for treating the CBI as a handmaiden, suggesting that immediate steps be taken for liberating it from executive influence. Together the two scandals dealt a body blow to a government already in all manner of trouble over 2G, Coalgate and other scams. But typically the regime waited until matters had reached a head and it was no longer possible to follow the usual drill of delaying until the pressure had eased. The plain truth is that the government’s image has hit rock bottom with any protestations of innocence being seen only as an extended act of chicanery by an establishment practised in deceit. This was to have been the moment to rejoice for party and government. But thanks to these ministerial misdemeanours, and the government’s own refusal to act before irretrievable damage was done, the sheen has been taken off the Congress’s glorious victory in Karnataka.