Prime Minister Manmohan Singh axed scam-tainted ministers Pawan Kumar Bansal and Ashwani Kumar, two cabinet members seen to be close to him, late on Friday and hours after Congress president Sonia Gandhi expressed her displeasure at their continuance in office.
In a meeting with Singh, Sonia is understood to have conveyed the party’s unease at growing public anger against the government for not acting against railways minister Bansal and law minister Kumar, who have made headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Labour minister Mallikarjun Kharge is likely to be given additional charge of railways and telecom minister Kapil Sibal or petroleum minister Veerappa Moily may look after the law ministry, sources said.
Bansal’s continuation had become untenable after his nephew was arrested by the CBI last week for accepting a R90-lakh bribe for fixing a high-level appointment in the railway board and subsequent investigations showed the scam was leading right up to the minister’s door.
Kumar came in the line of fire for having interfered in the ongoing CBI probe into Coalgate, which led to the washout of the second half of the budget session with the Opposition demanding the PM’s resignation and the sacking of the law minister.
Though Bansal’s resignation was a foregone conclusion given the incriminating evidence mounting against him, Kumar’s exit appeared uncertain due to the PM’s continued support, until Sonia stepped in.
Her political secretary Ahmed Patel was present when the PM summoned Bansal and Kumar to seek their resignations and draw a line under the controversy that had even deflated some of the euphoria over the Congress’ win in Karnataka.
Kumar’s continuation had given rise to strong speculation about a divide between the party leadership and the PM, since Singh was learnt to be of the view that Supreme Court had not made any adverse comments against Kumar and a case for ousting him was not made out.
First signs that the Congress had decided to dump both the controversial ministers came during the party's briefing earlier in the day, when its spokesperson stressed a zero tolerance policy for corruption and any kind of manipulation.
"Congress is not going to tolerate any corruption. It will not spare anybody mired in corruption...If anybody is involved in manipulation, that cannot be spared," said party spokesperson Bhakta Charan Das.
The resignations of two key Congress ministers, coming less than a fortnight before celebrations to mark the UPA's ninth year in office, gave the Opposition a chance to attack it yet again. Sushma Swaraj, leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, tweeted that the government could have prevented a washout of the budget session had it accepted the BJP's demand to sack the two ministers.
The session was adjourned on Wednesday, two days ahead of scheduled, and the passage of key bills was rendered impossible.