Bribe and blood ties

Print edition : May 31, 2013

P.K. Bansal. The CBI will quiz the Railway Minister over undue favours in appointments. Photo: Ramesh Sharma

Vijay Singla (right), nephew of Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal, being taken by CBI officials on May 4 from Chandigarh to Delhi for further investigation in the bribery case. Photo: AKHILESH KUMAR

Ajay Garg, one of the accused in the case. He was arrested in New Delhi on May 7. Photo: PTI

Mahesh Kumar, member, Railway Board. The case involves alleged bribery to get him a plum post. Photo: PTI

The police outside Bansal's residence during a protest in New Delhi on May 6. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

The UPA government, which has become a byword for nepotistic and corrupt governance, is rocked by one more case involving a nephew pulling the strings for his uncle.

THE year 2013 has been a year of setbacks for the Congress party, especially at the Centre. Even as it is struggling to defend itself against the opposition onslaught in Parliament with regard to the scams in the allocation of coal blocks and 2G spectrum, yet another bribery scandal erupted, this time involving the Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal (the Minister resigned subsequently). Bansal’s nephew Vijay Singla was arrested by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on May 4 for allegedly accepting a bribe of Rs.90 lakh from one Sandeep Goyal in return for an assurance that Mahesh Kumar, an officer in the Indian Railways, would be promoted as Member (Electrical), Railway Board. It is considered a plum post as it involves heavy financial dealings in terms of tenders for electrical supply. Interestingly, Mahesh Kumar, who was a General Manager in Western Railway, had taken charge as Member (Staff) on May 2, after receiving a promotion.

According to the CBI, he had shown interest in getting appointment in the electrical department. Some CBI sources claimed that Singla, on the grounds that the Railway Minister was his maternal uncle, had assured Goyal of Mahesh Kumar’s promotion. The CBI further claimed that Singla bragged about many other promotions he had a hand in during Bansal’s tenure. It said only after Mahesh Kumar felt assured of landing the job that he arranged for money from two persons, Manjunath and Ajay Garg.

The family flourishes

The CBI has initiated investigations into all the top appointments in the Railways during Bansal’s tenure. Bansal, a Lok Sabha member from Chandigarh, took over as Railway Minister on October 28, 2012, after the Trinamool Congress withdrew its support from the United Progressive Alliance government last year. As a result, he became the first Railway Minister from the Congress party after 1996.

Bansal is known to be fairly close to Singla, although he denied having any business links with him or any of his family members. However, people in Chandigarh who know Bansal have told the media that Singla was the de facto manager of all Bansal’s businesses.

“Recorded conversations between Vijay Singla, Sandeep Goyal, Mahesh Kumar and Manjunath have several references to the Railway Minister. Singla is confidently assuring Goyal that the Minister would get the work done and Goyal gives further assurances to Mahesh Kumar. We have to verify the same by checking whether the Railway Minister signed any document to give dual charge to Mahesh Kumar,” a national daily quoted a CBI source as saying.

The CBI said that Bansal’s involvement can only be ascertained after he is questioned, but it told the media that it had enough evidence against the accused as it had been trailing them over the last two months and had tapped around 1,000 phone conversations of all the 10 accused in the case. It said that the Rs.90 lakh Singla received was only an advance payment while the total amount was Rs.10 crore.

The others accused in the case are charged with arranging the money for Mahesh Kumar and most of them dealt in the supply of electrical goods. Prominent among them is Ajay Garg, who owns a multi-crore electrical goods company, which also supplies to the Railways. The CBI also questioned the Railway Minister’s private secretary, Rahul Bhandari, a 1997 batch Punjab cadre IAS officer, in connection with the case.

The rise of Singla

That Bansal was close to Singla is not the only reason he has been under the scanner. The success of Bansal in politics in the last 15 years coincides with Singla’s meteoric rise. Singla is from a village in Bhatinda and had modest earnings from his edible oil mills but he rose to prominence by diversifying his business in a very short span of time into areas such as real estate, cement, packaging, infrastructure and steel manufacturing. Around the same time, Bansal, too, took giant leaps in Central politics.

“According to the documents available with the Union Ministry of Corporate Affairs, Singla is a director of JTL Infra Limited, Jagan Industries, Himani Steels Private Limited, Chetan Industries Limited, Jagan Realtors Private Limited, MVM Metal and Alloys Private Limited and Radian Ferrometals Private Limited. Many of these companies began flourishing fast and Singla was frequently spotted hobnobbing with industrialists from different parts of the country at party events. According to sources in the local Congress, he would often facilitate meetings of captains of industry with Bansal at his industrial complex on the edge of Chandigarh,” a national daily reported.

If the speculations about Bansal’s involvement in the bribery case are found to be true, it will be yet another political setback for the Congress party, which has earned enough notoriety for nepotistic and corrupt governance in the last five years.