On May 11, 2013 the Congress – and most media – touted the resignations of Pawan Bansal as Railway Minister and Ashwani Kumar as Law Minister as Sonia Gandhi’s reading out the riot act to Manmohan Singh and forcing him to restore honesty back to the UPA Government. To call this bluff one has only to look at how the Congress had defended Ashwini two weeks ago and Bansal a week before. Yet, there is world of difference between the two.
Bansal had engaged his nephew Vijay Singla to sell, in grey market, several plum posts in the Railways. He is chargeable for corruption. But Ashwani tampered with the records meant for the Supreme Court to protect the corrupt high-ups in the coal scam. He is chargeable not for corruption but for contempt. Yet, their fate have become interdependent. How?
Bansal’s case first. Late evening on May 3, 2013, Singla was meticulously counting the last few currency bundles of the first installment [Rs 90 lakh] out of the bribe of Rs 2 crore for Bansal’s signature to promote one Mahesh Kumar from a less lucrative post to a more lucrative one where Kumar could mint more money. The CBI was desperate to show its teeth after its humiliating admission in the Supreme Court on April 26, 2013 that it had allowed Ashwani and the officials of the PMO to forge its coal scam report meant only for the court. When the CBI sleuths tracking Singla on phone reported to their bosses that Singla was negotiating bribes, they must have directed them to pounce on Singla. And when the sleuths found Singla with high denomination currency bundles in his hands, the CBI hit a jackpot and arrested him. Bansal must be actually cursing Ashwani for his misfortunes as, if the court had not forced the CBI to confess having allowed Ashwani to forge its reports, the agency would have winked at Singla like it often does in cases involving many sons, nephews and sons-in-law of ruling party bigwigs.
Now come to Ashwani. When the CBI director damned him in his affidavit on April 26, the entire Congress party stood by him. Yes, he was nowhere near the coal scam. He was actually altruistic, just helping his bosses. But the beneficiaries of his altruism were the buccaneers in the coal scam who must have pocketed, not a few crores like Bansal and Singla, but several tens of thousands of crores out of the scam amount of `1.86 lakh crore estimated by the CAG. But an alert Supreme Court made the CBI confess that Ashwani did fabricate the heart of the CBI report to the Court. The CBI which coerces the guilty to confess was itself humiliated to confess its guilt. So Ashwani’s action rebounded on Bansal first. Bansal’s corruption in turn tainted Ashwani as corrupt. And both got bracketed so that if one were to go, the other had to. This was the position on May 4, 2013. The next day, May 5, was Karnataka poll. See what happens in the Congress. Bansal met the Prime Minister on May 4, twice offered to resign. Yet the party core group headed by Sonia Gandhi met and staunchly defended Bansal.
Janandhan Dwivedi, Congress spokesman, said that it had become a disease with the Opposition to demand resignations asking, as the Railway Minister himself had given clarification and asked for a thorough probe, what more could he do?
Sonia actually led Bansal’s defence. Was he honest on May 4? No. But, he had to be saved because the ‘corrupt’ Bansal would take with him Ashwani, who was protecting the party bosses. All illegal coal allocations, that has cost the government almost a sixth of its annual revenues in one shot, were made under the very eyes of the Prime Minister who was the Coal Minister as well. The allotments were against the policy of auction, which the PM himself had asked the coal secretary to formulate. But according to Mumbai Mirror, of course denied formally, the PM had told Sonia that his office had made the allotments only on the advice of someone very close to her. That explains why Ashwani and the PMO officials jointly scored out from the CBI probe report into the legality of coal allocations -- which the Supreme Court saw as subverting the heart of the probe. See the protective chain. Ashwani was protecting the PM, the PM was preventing the probe getting close to Sonia. So to save Ashwani, Bansal had to be saved. Hence the defence of Bansal.
The Karnataka results were declared on May 8. And the Congress emerged victorious. For couple of days media was carrying reports that Sonia, who was defending both Bansal and Ashwani, was unhappy with the continuation of the tainted ministers! Were they not as much tainted on May 4 when the Sonia-led core group defended Bansal? But May 10 was not May 4. Sonia met Manmohan and after that both Bansal and Ashwani were sacked. Bansal had offered to resign on May 4. He could have been allowed to go. But that was of no use.
He had to be sacked so that the credit for acting against corruption went to Sonia. Unfortunately Ashwani could not remain if Bansal went. And he did go. But he could only blame Bansal and his fate, not the party bosses. Imagine if the Karnataka poll results were different. Neither Bansal nor Ashwani would have quit.
And see how the media projected the sacking of both on May 11. “PM’s image hits new low as Sonia stands tall against ministers.” reported one. Another screamed, ‘Manmohan Singh came a cropper and Sonia Gandhi earned brownie points for taking a principled stand’. A foreign media commented: Sonia put her foot down.....read the riot act to Manmohan Singh.’ To confirm these, Congress spokesperson Bhakta Charan Das admitted to a TV channel that there was difference of opinion between the Prime Minister and the party -- read Sonia -- and the initiative to sack the ministers was taken by Sonia Gandhi.
So the Prime Minister was utterly humiliated on May 10 and 11. Habituated to humiliation, he probably thought it was like how Sonia was always credited with the decisions to lower the fuel prices or not to raise the fuel prices, with the PM taking the blame for raising or not lowering the fuel prices. But he must have realised on reflection that in this case he is the real target of the coal scam probe, and so must have made the rarest of rare protests. Then came the consolation prize -- a statement from the Congress that Sonia and the the PM jointly decided to sack Bansal and Ashwani.
But it is just interval. When the show reopens, the Railway bribery may stop at Bansal, but the coal scam will not stop with Ashwani.
Manmohan is next in the firing line. And the Delhi rumour is that he may have to go, may be even forced to go. He cannot ever say that he had allotted coal as advised by some one closest to Sonia. So. Sonia is safe.
Poor Manmohan, who no one suspects has hoarded wealth, is not. Ironically it is Sonia’s family, not Manmohan’s, which was accused by the popular Swiss magazine Schweizer Illustrierte [dated 19.11.1991] of holding $2.5 billion in secret bank accounts [now worth four times that amount]. Corporate Insider magazine in the US [dated 2.3.2012] has listed Sonia, not Manmohan, as the world’s fourth richest politician with estimated wealth between $2 to $19 billion. Yet, because she got Bansal and Ashwani sacked, Sonia is now projected as “Mrs Clean” like Rajiv was, as “Mr Clean”. And if Manmohan goes she will emerge as the “Mrs Cleanest”. And Manmohan? as tainted as Ashwani, as even Bansal
S Gurumurthy is a well-known commentator on political and economic issues.