Railway minister Pawan Kumar Bansal's continuance in the Union Cabinet hung in balance on Saturday night as Congress and the government received a fresh battering in the wake of the arrest of his nephew on the charge of accepting bribe to fix plum position in the Railway Board.
As demands for Bansal's removal and prosecution mounted, the Congress Core Group headed by Sonia Gandhi inconclusively met at the residence of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who called and talked to the minister earlier in the day.
Sources said Bansal did not offer to resign and in the Core Group meeting he explained his position claiming that he had no business links with his nephew nor did he get influenced by him in decision-making.
A meeting of the Core Group could take place on Sunday for a possible decision on the issue before Parliament resumes on Monday.
Senior ministers AK Antony, Sushilkumar Shinde, Sonia Gandhi's political secretary Ahmed Patel were also present along with parliamentary affairs minister Kamal Nath.
Senior party sources said that even at the Core Group meeting there was no offer by Bansal to resign. A decision on his contiuance or not may be taken at tomorrow's meeting of the Core Group, they said.
On his part, Bansal distanced himself from his nephew Vijay Singla, who was arrested by CBI on Friday night for allegedly accepting Rs. 90 lakhs for fixing a better position for Railway Board member Mahesh Kumar.
In a statement, 64-year-old Bansal, who was made Railway minister in October last year, claimed he has always observed the highest standards of probity in public life and that nobody can influence his decisions. He also sought an expeditious CBI inquiry into the issue.
Interestingly, the AICC also appeared to back him with party generaly secretary Janardan Dwivedi brushing demands for Bansal's resignation saying it has become a "disease" for the Opposition to make such demands.
Notwithstanding the party general secretary's statement, the development involving Bansal has come as a shock and surprise in Congress circles as he had a clean and non-controversial image.
It has also come at a most troubled time when the UPA government has been at the receiving end over the Coalgate issue in which law minister Ashwini Kumar's fate also hangs by a thread, depending on the Supreme Court proceedings next week.
Sunday's Congress Core Group meeting at the end of Karnataka assembly elections could make the party assess the damage on allowing Bansal to continue in the government or to brazen out the issue, analysts say.
Gunning for Bansal, BJP demanded his "sacking" and "prosecution". Leader of the Opposition in Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley said Bansal is not only morally responsible but "criminally responsible" in the issue.
"It is a cash-and-carry government which has lost all moral authority to remain in power," he said.
Jaitley's party colleague Ravi Shankar Prasad said the latest corruption charges in the government further "reinforces" their demand for the Prime Minister's resignation.
"This government is no more a government of common man but a government of dealers, brokers and middlemen, where every government decision is up for sale and you must be prepared to offer the price.
"Congress has reduced the government to a bazaar where every decision is tradeable. This is very shocking and distressing state of affair," Prasad said.
Bansal was on Saturday evasive to a question whether he has offered to quit in the wake of the arrest of his nephew on a charge of accepting bribe for allegedly fixing appointments in the Railway Board.
"I have given my statement in the morning," was his repeated answers to the question when he was leaving for the Prime Minister's residence in the evening when a meeting of the Congress Core Group was to take place.
On Friday night, his nephew Vijay Singla was arrested by CBI in Chandigarh on a charge of accepting Rs. 90 lakh as bribe for fixing top level appointments in Railway Board.
CBI Officers produced Vijay Singla, nephew of railway minister Pawan Kumar Bansal in an alleged bribery case At Patiala house court in New Delhi.
Mahesh Kumar, who was appointed Member (Personnel) of the Board a couple of days ago was also arrested in Mumbai on Friday night for allegedly paying the bribe to the minister's nephew.
CBI Officers produced Vijay Singla, nephew of railway minister Pawan Kumar Bansal in an alleged bribery case At Patiala house court in New Delhi. HT/Sonu Mehta
Bansal met the Prime Minister at the latter's 7 Race Course Road residence on Saturday morning and apprised him of the issue, informed sources said.
Later, Congress general secretary Janardan Dwivedi defended Bansal, saying that he had clarified his position and "those demanding his resignation were affected by a disease".
Vijay Singla, Bansal's nephew, was on Saturday remanded in CBI custody for four days by a Delhi court in connection with a bribery case.
Besides Singla, three others Sandip Goyal, Dharmendra Kumar and Vivek Kumar were also remanded by Special CBI Judge Swarana Kanta Sharma till May 8 for custodial interrogation by the agency.
"Considering the nature of the crime, custodial interrogation is essential to not only find out the source of the bribe amount but also the actual beneficiaries and conspirators other than those named in the FIR.
"I, therefore, grant police custody remand for four days," the judge said.
All the four accused were arrested by CBI which had on Friday registered a case against Mahesh Kumar, a Member (staff) of Railway Board, and seven other persons for offences under the Prevention of Corruption Act and for criminal conspiracy under the IPC for bribery to get a lucrative post.
During the arguments, CBI told the court that Mahesh Kumar is the main accused in the case and he has been arrested in Mumbai.
It said Narain Rao Manjunath, Managing Director of GG Tronics India Pvt Ltd, was in regular touch with Mahesh Kumar who was trying to get himself appointed to a more lucrative post of in Railway Board as Member (Electrical).
Regarding the conspiracy, the agency said the deal was struck at Rs. 10 crore to get Mahesh Kumar appointed as Member (Electrical) and a part payment of Rs. 90 lakhs, which was allegedly managed by accused Vivek Kumar, was made out.
CBI said the first tranche of Rs. 90 lakh was given to Singla who was apprehended while accepting the money.
Seeking their custody, CBI said the case involved a big conspiracy and many other persons are also involved in it and as the case is at an initial stage, they want to interrogate them to unearth the entire conspiracy.
CBI said it has only recovered Rs. 90 lakhs and sustained custodial interrogation of all the accused is necessary to ascertain where the other money has gone.
"We want to probe it as to who was to be benefited. Police custody is needed in order to ascertain the identity of other people involved in it," the agency said.
Regarding Manjunath, CBI told the court that he was the "main financier" and has been arrested in Bangalore.
During the hearing, CBI told the court that they need to arrest Samir Singhani and one Rahul to unearth the entire conspiracy and for that custodial interrogation of the accused was necessary.
The defence counsel, appearing for the four accused, opposed CBI's plea for custody saying their clients have already told the agency what they knew and there was nothing more which they could tell to the investigators.
The counsel, appearing for Singhla, told the court that Rs. 90 lakhs, which CBI is claiming to have recovered from him, was given to him for some land deal and had nothing to do with the appointment of Mahesh Kumar.
During the hearing, some lawyers interrupted the proceedings alleging Railway Minister Pawan Bansal should be taken into custody by CBI.
The defence counsel, however, told the court thay they have no locus standi and they should not take any name or make any allegations against anyone as CBI is investigating the case and will tell the court about their probe.
The judge also refused to hear the demands of the lawyers saying they do not have any locus standi to argue in this matter.