Ministerial resignations seen as setback to Punjab

Chandigarh: Two controversies, both swirling around ministerial malfeasance and impropriety, may not have anything to do directly with Punjab but the state is experiencing its political fallout.Ministerial resignations seen as setback to Punjab

With the exit of Pawan Kumar Bansal (railway ministry) and Ashwani Kumar (law ministry) from the union cabinet yesterday, after both were embroiled in separate controversies, the representation from Punjab in the union cabinet has dwindled to two.

Having four ministers in the cabinet from a small state like Punjab (including Chandigarh) was considered a big plus for the state till recently.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s own image has taken a hit as he continued to defend both his ministers even though certain Congress leaders were against them in office.

After being an embarrassment to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government for the past few days, both ministers were forced to resign within a span of two hours Friday.

With their exit, Punjab has only two ministers from the state, Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari and Minister of State for External Affairs Preneet Kaur, in the cabinet.

Bansal, the MP from the union territory of Chandigarh, the joint capital of Punjab and Haryana, was forced to resign from the post of railways minister after the names of his family members, relatives and close associates figured in revelations of alleged irregularities involving bribery, nepotism and money laundering.

Bansal, who became a union minister of state for finance in 2006, is now also being accused of being involved in conflict of interest.

Bansal got his chartered accountant, Sunil Kumar Gupta, appointed as a director of the public-sector Canara Bank. Within months, the bank started extending loans running into several crores of rupees to start-up companies owned by Bansal’s sons, nephews and other relatives.

But what got Bansal into trouble was the arrest of his nephew Vijay Singla by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) recently for allegedly accepting a bribe of Rs.90 lakh from top railway officer, Mahesh Kumar.

The officer was appointed as a member of the railway board, a high-level, powerful appointment, just a day before the CBI nabbed Singla with the bribe.

Over 10 arrests have been made by the CBI, including that of Mahesh Kumar and millionaire associates of Singla.

Bansal, who enjoyed a near clean image as a politician so far, could hardly defend himself after more skeletons tumbled out of his closet. Companies, in which his wife, sons and daughters-in-law and other nephews and relatives were directors, were alleged beneficiaries of largesse from banks and other institutions.

The rising fortunes of Bansal’s clan and associates are being scrutinised now.

Bansal’s scalp, which now is being termed by the opposition parties as a “bonus”, came even as the opposition was already gunning for law minister Ashwani Kumar.

Kumar, who is a Rajya Sabha member from Punjab and hails from Gurdaspur district, was at the centre of a major controversy as he is was accused of gross impropriety in tampering with a CBI probe report for the Supreme Court on irregular coal block allocation.

The CBI submitted its report to the Supreme Court which took strong exception to the interference of the minister and others in the probe.

Though Prime Minister Manmohan Singh tried to defend Kumar, the pressure from outside and within the Congress saw him resigning Friday evening.

Punjab’s a loss in representation in the union government is unlikely to get a replacement from the state. The Congress leadership in the state, which is in opposition for over six years and will continue for another four, will have to settle with lesser representation in New Delhi now.

– Jaideep Sarin (IANS)

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