The UPA government finally acted against errant Ministers Pawan Kumar Bansal and Ashwani Kumar, extracting their resignations late on Friday evening.
Shortly after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh held discussions, first with Congress president Sonia Gandhi, and later with her Political Secretary, Ahmed Patel, Mr. Bansal, and then Mr. Kumar, arrived at 7 Race Course Road — in their official cars — to put in their papers, bringing to an end days of mounting embarrassment to the Congress and the government.
The resignations coincided with the election in Bangalore of Siddaramaiah as Congress Legislature Party leader. Indeed, a hint that the government did not wish its victory in the Karnataka polls to be overshadowed by murky tales of indiscretion, impropriety and indiscretion in New Delhi came earlier in the evening: party spokesperson Bhakta Charan Das, asked how the party planned to deal with the two Ministers, said: “We must respect the verdict of the people in Karnataka,” a reference to the ouster of the BJP government in the wake of a string of corruption scandals.
With the departure of Mr. Bansal and Mr. Kumar from the Ministry, there are now eight vacancies, three of them in the Cabinet: in March, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham withdrew from the government and its Cabinet Minister — M.K. Alagiri, who held the Chemicals and Fertilizers portfolio — and five MoSs left. None of those jobs has yet been filled. If Mr. Alagiri’s job is being taken care of by MoS Srikanta Jena, the government cannot afford to leave Law and Railway headless for too long.
Mr. Bansal’s resignation came precisely a week after a report suggesting that his nephew, Vijay Singla, had accepted a bribe from a Railway Board member to facilitate a lateral promotion, hit the headlines. Sources in the Congress said though Mr. Bansal had offered to put in his papers last Saturday, the party leadership asked him to stay on until after the Karnataka elections were over.
Mr. Bansal, apart from issuing a “clarification” stating his innocence and welcoming an investigation, largely stayed out of view. With fresh revelations in the bribery case emerging from telephone records and the expectation that he would be questioned shortly by the CBI, his continuance in office became untenable.
Mr. Kumar, however, quit after more than two weeks of high drama that included noisy scenes in Parliament, with the Opposition demanding his scalp for “vetting” the CBI affidavit in the Coalgate affair before it was submitted in the Supreme Court.
His attempts at a specially convened meeting of party and government spokespersons to mobilise support for himself failed, largely because he is not very popular with his colleagues. The final nail in the coffin was put by the Supreme Court questioning the CBI investigation’s credibility and asking for a thorough and qualitative probe.
On Thursday, an attempt was made to make a distinction between the charges against the two: while Mr. Kumar, his supporters said, was merely “indiscreet” and committed an “act of impropriety,” Mr. Bansal’s case, they said, was more serious as it involved corruption. But clearly, in the end, the party decided that both had to go if it was to get any dividends from the Karnataka results.