With investigations into the railway bribery scam indicating the kingpins may have operated right under his nose, Pawan Kumar Bansal’s position as railways minister looked increasingly untenable on Thursday night.
In a possible sign of things to come, Bansal skipped a cabinet meeting and also did not attend office. Cabinet colleague Ashwani Kumar, also in the line of fire for interfering with the CBI probe into the coal blocks allocation scam, however, attended the meeting and actively participated in the deliberations, sources said.
The Congress has so far maintained it is for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to take a final call on the two ministers. With Singh continuing to back Kumar, it is Bansal who seems to be heading for the exit door.
Sources indicated that chances of Bansal being eased out from the cabinet and Kumar shifted to another portfolio are high. A minor cabinet reshuffle could happen soon.
For the second consecutive day on Thursday, Bansal’s close confidant and private secretary Rahul Bhandari was examined by the CBI, with speculation mounting that the minister himself may face an examination by the agency soon.
HT was the first to report Bhandari’s suspected role, bringing the investigation closer to Bansal. Tapping of phones by the CBI has recorded conversations between Bhandari and Vijay Singla, Bansal’s nephew, who was arrested with bribe money last week.
With the Parliament session over and the crucial Supreme Court hearing in the coal blocks scam having passed, the government had a relatively easy day and it tried to give an impression of business as usual.
Information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari downplayed Bansal's absence from the cabinet meeting. "It often happens that a minister who does not have any listed agenda decides in his wisdom not to attend," he said.
On the CBI probe in the rail bribery scam, Tewari said :"Railways minister has welcomed the investigation process and it should be allowed to culminate. Criminal law says unless proven guilty, you are innocent."
During the day, Kumar went to the prime minister's office (PMO), triggering speculation that he had met the PM. However, he later denied any such meeting.
The government's top law officer, attorney general GE Vahanvati, met the PM and is learnt to have briefed him about the outcome of the Supreme Court hearing on Wednesday.
In the afternoon, a meeting between the PM and President Pranab Mukherjee set off a buzz about a possible reshuffle sometime soon but sources termed it "routine" after the conclusion of a session of Parliament.