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Smooth ride turns wobbly

Congress leader Pawan Kumar Bansal was chugging along quite nicely for years, steamrolling all opposition, but not any longer. The ride appears to have turned rather bumpy for the former union railway minister in a territory he had made his own.

chandigarh Updated: Feb 16, 2014 00:32 IST
Navneet Sharma and Surender Sharma
Navneet Sharma and Surender Sharma
Hindustan Times
Lok Sabha seat,Congress leader,Pawan Kumar Bansal

Congress leader Pawan Kumar Bansal was chugging along quite nicely for years, steamrolling all opposition, but not any longer. The ride appears to have turned rather bumpy for the former union railway minister in a territory he had made his own.

A four-time MP, the unassuming, soft-spoken lawyer-turned-politician had scored a smooth hat-trick in his last electoral outing in 2009 and emerged as a key member of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s team. He first handled parliamentary affairs and then the railways – the first Congressman to get the ministry in 17 years – in October 2012. Considered close to the PM, Bansal had everything going for him with no serious challenge from the rival BJP or within his party. His trademark spotless-white kurta-pyjama went well with his ‘Mr Clean’ image. Not a small achievement for a low-profile neta from a small city having just one Lok Sabha seat.

Reputation ‘derailed’
But then the cash-for-job scandal happened, tarring his reputation. When his nephew was caught accepting bribe for allegedly fixing a top appointment in the railway board, all hell broke loose. A media firestorm, an opposition insistent on his sacking and pressure from within his party ensured Bansal, who has denied any role, was axed to save the Congress from further ignominy.

While the Central Bureau of Investigation’s (CBI’s) move to enlist him as a “prosecution witness” in the bribery case is a breather, his grip on the party is slipping. There are already rumblings of discontent in his backyard, with some of his one-time acolytes, who cut their political teeth by working for him, having scented an opportunity. After Bansal’s name was recommended four months ago, the Congress invited applications and five other leaders have also staked their claim.

Fissures within Cong

While there is an attempt to show off multiplicity of ticket claimants as a sign of vibrant democracy, the manner in which some of them, especially former senior deputy mayor Bhupinder Singh Badheri and former deputy mayor HS Lucky, railed against the sitting MP, demanding a fresh face, has revealed emerging cracks in the party. "There is resentment against Bansal because he never allowed any leader to grow," his critics say. The Congress lost deputy mayor and senior deputy mayor’s posts to the BJP in the recent municipal corporation elections. There is also talk in party circles about union ministers Kapil Sibal and Manish Tewari eyeing the seat.

However, Bansal backers are confident he would get the nod. Besides the TINA (there is no alternative) factor, their optimism has been bolstered by the party high command’s decision to make him in-charge of the candidates screening committees in key states of Gujarat and Rajasthan. Bansal, who has not faced such political heat before, shrugs off allegations that he trusted and promoted only his kin. “Aspirations hoti hain logo ki, unko lagta hai chance khatam ho gaya. Iss liye aise aarop lagate hain (people make such allegations because they feel they have lost their chance). My wife and son detested politics. If they work for me, what is wrong with it? I have tried to take everyone along. I am confident of people’s support,” he says, counting on his accessibility, genial demeanour and performance.

A dose of development
Advocate Arjun Shukla says the MP has done considerable development by introducing new trains and pushing infrastructure projects in the city even as it is emerging on the world map. Similarly, housewife Geeta Yadav readily puts her stamp of approval on the MP’s performance by citing his focus on parks, street lighting and sports facilities in residential sectors, besides improved train connectivity.

City-based software developer Hardik Dhamija feels infrastructure is good, but being a regional hub it needed emphasis on industry and IT. Though his development initiatives work in his favour, the railway scandal has dented his image.

“Bansal should get credit for spending a lot under the MPLAD and rehabilitation programme, but the bribery controversy has brought down his image among the masses and the Congress. Development works carried out in the city were also politicised,” says Panjab University professor, political science, Khaled Mohammed. There are also other issues such as regularisation of alterations in flats, slow pace of work for modernisation of railway station, conversion of industrial plots from lease to freehold and delay in the Metro.

Part 8 of 34:
Sher Singh Ghubaya, Ferozepur

First Published: Feb 15, 2014 23:44 IST