Exit from the Punjab cabinet was the solitary route left for Gulzar Singh Ranike and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) leadership to save the six-month-old Parkash Singh Badal government from further blushes.
Initially, the awful truth that crores of rupees had been embezzled brazenly in the name of rural grants, allegedly by the minister's staff, dawned slowly on the SAD leadership.
But when the distinct picture of shamelessness with which central funds were pocketed under the nose of the minister emerged, the SAD leadership advised Ranike to put in his papers as he couldn't evade the responsibility in the capacity of the minister for animal husbandry, fisheries, dairy development and Scheduled Caste (SC)/Backward Class (BC) welfare.
Now, the Badal government which was sworn in on March 14 is facing the ignominy of its three Akali ministers (earlier Bibi Jagir Kaur and Tota Singh) resigning from the cabinet.
On March 30, a special CBI court had sentenced Bibi Jagir Kaur to five years' rigorous imprisonment for the illegal confinement and forceful abortion of her daughter Harpreet Kaur, who died under mysterious circumstances in 2000. And on May 5 the Mohali court held Tota Singh guilty of misusing an official vehicle of the Punjab School Education Board during his 1997-2002 stint as the education minister.
The Punjab cabinet has a strength of 18 ministers, including the CM. After the resignation of Jagir Kaur, Tota Singh and Ranike, three cabinet slots are vacant.
Early on Sunday morning, Ranike met chief minister here and handed over a one-page resignation letter written in Punjabi. "To ensure high moral standards in politics and to maintain the sanctity of the minister's post, I am hereby resigning… I also urge the CM to accept this resignation immediately so that my continuation as minister does not hamper the ongoing investigation…" Ranike said in the letter.
As the CM was scheduled to watch the Davis Cup tennis match here, he sounded his staff officers about the development before leaving his residence at 9.40am. He directed them to immediately send the file of Ranike's resignation to the governor. The latter is likely to formally accept the resignation on Monday (Sunday being a holiday), government sources said.
"Chief minister Parkash Singh Badal said the law of the land will take its own course. He has made it crystal clear that the vigilance inquiry ordered by him in this case is in line with the SAD-BJP's government's policy to ensure clean, transparent and corruption-free governance," a spokesperson for the chief minister said.
Ranike's path had become bumpy and his continuation as minister became untenable after the chief minister handed over the probe to the Vigilance Bureau (VB) last week. "The subsequent strong statements of the chief minister that the guilty will be punished gave a terse signal to Ranike to leave the government," a SAD leader said.
Government sources stated that before the VB probe was ordered, Ranike met the CM and had to face a volley of bouncers. Ranike admitted that being a minister, he could not shrug off the blame. While holding his staff responsible for the rip-off, Ranike admitted that sarpanches of his constituency used to complain of having not received the funds in question. "But Ranike took the plea that he ignored such complaints as he had sanctioned the money and people have the habit of complaining…" said a well-placed source in the government.
It was after inputs from various administrative channels that this was an open-and-shut case of embezzlement that the case was handed over to the VB. As Ranike had to appear sooner or later before the investigating officer - probably of the rank of deputy superintendent of police his ouster became imminent.