New Delhi/Chandigarh, May 4 (IANS) The Congress-led UPA government was hit by a new crisis Saturday as the nephew of Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal was sent to CBI custody after being arrested for taking a Rs.90 lakh bribe from a senior railway official, triggering opposition calls for the minister’s sacking.
An embattled Bansal pleaded innocence and claimed he had no knowledge of nephew Vijay Singla’s activities even as opposition parties demanded a wider probe into recent postings and award of contracts in the railway ministry, which the Congress has come to head for the first time in decades.
With the opposition still insistent on Law Minister Ashwani Kumar’s sacking for his controversial role in the coal block allocation scandal, the Congress core group met at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s residence in the evening to discuss the situation arising from the embarrsassing arrest of Bansal’s nephew.
Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, Defence Minister A.K. Antony, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde and Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary Ahmed Patel attended the meeting.
Earlier, Bansal met the prime minister at the latter’s 7 Race Course Road residence in the morning and apprised him of the issue, the sources said.
According to sources, the minister’s contention was that he was being targeted for the mistake of his nephew and that he had no link with his relative in the matter.
Congress sources said for now the party leadership is buying Bansal’s argument but would not hesitate in taking action against him in the future if the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe indicated his involvement in the matter.
Before the core group met, Congress general secretary Janardan Dwivedi defended Bansal, saying that he had clarified his position and “those demanding his resignation were affected by a disease”.
The Congress said those who took bribe to ensure the promotion of a railway official will be punished. “Whoever is the culprit will be punished,” Congress spokesperson Rashid Alvi told reporters.
The sordid saga unfolded Friday night when CBI officials swooped on the unsuspecting Singla’s residence in Chandigarh, which is Bansal’s parliamentary constituency, after railway official Mahesh Kumar had allegedly paid the bribe money to a conduit.
Singla, his friend Sandeep Goyal and three othes were arrested in Chandigarh formally after midnight Friday. Simultaneously, Mahesh Kumar, the general manager of Western Railway who was named a member of the Railway Board Thursday, was arrested in Mumbai as he landed from New Delhi.
A court sent Singla, Goyal and two others to four days police custody. The other two accused are identified as Dharmendra Kumar and Vivek Kumar.
Singla, a multi-millionaire businessman from Chandigarh is Bansal’s sister’s son. The fifth arrested person was identified as Manjunath, who acted as a conduit.
Singla was accused of allegedly accepting a bribe of Rs.90 lakh from senior railway officer Mahesh Kumar for his (Kumar’s) appointment as a member of the powerful Railway Board.
Kumar, who tried to cover his face with a handkerchief when he was arrested from Mumbai Friday night, was general manager of Western Railway until he was made a Railway Board member Thursday.
In Chandigarh, the CBI teams raided Singla’s palatial residence in Sector 28 through Friday night. Singla’s residence is located close to the residence of Bansal.
A CBI official said Singla had actually demanded a bribe of Rs.10 crore from the railway official but later agreed to accept Rs.2 crore.
CBI sources said the telephone calls of Singla, Kumar and others were being monitored for the last few days before the CBI decided to make the arrests.
With the opposition unrelenting vis-a-vis Ashwani Kumar, the Congress was preparing for a turbulent parliament session Monday.
The arrest of the minister’s nephew triggered calls from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the CPI-M and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) among others for Bansal’s immediate sacking.
CPI-M leader Sitaram Yechury and BJP’s Ravi Shankar Prasad said Bansal had no moral right to continue in office. The BJP also sought Manmohan Singh’s exit. BJP’s Arun Jaitley went to the extent of demanding criminal proceedings against Bansal.
AAP said the minister’s statement that he knew nothing about his nephew’s doings was unsustainable. It demanded an investigation into all recent railway contracts.