Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal and Law Minister Ashwani Kumar resigned Friday,putting an end to the prolonged suspense over their fate after controversies involving them further battered the image of the UPA government.
The two ministers got the marching orders about three hours after Congress President Sonia Gandhi met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to discuss their future.
While Mallikarjun Kharge,who lost out Friday to Siddaramaiah in the race for chief ministership in Karnataka,is said to be the front-runner for the railway portfolio,Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal is likely to be given additional charge of law.
Sources,however,added that Petroleum Minister Veerappa Moily was also in contention for his previous portfolio of law but he would be considered only if Sibal declines. They said that another cabinet reshuffle could be in the offing to spruce up governance but that would be effected later.
The ouster of the two ministers,who were perceived to be close to the Prime Minister,came under intense pressure from the Congress leadership. Called to the PMs residence Friday to put in his papers,Ashwani Kumar was said to have put up a lengthy defence arguing that there were no legal strictures against him,but he ultimately gave in saying that he would resign to put a lid on the ongoing controversy.
Bansal,who had taken over the railway ministry last October,had found himself at the centre of a huge controversy after the CBI had caught his nephew Vijay Singla allegedly red-handed in Chandigarh accepting Rs 90 lakh in cash as bribe for a lucrative posting for a senior railway official.
The controversy was further fuelled by increasing focus on what is believed to be the rising fortune of his close family members.
The law minister was at the centre of a storm for examining the CBI report to the Supreme Court on coal block allotments,first reported by The Indian Express on April 13. The CBI,in its affidavit to the Supreme Court,admitted that changes were made in its report. The court took strong exception to the law ministers act and also slammed the CBI for bowing to the government.
While the apex court did not specifically indict Kumar or seek his affidavit,the order released Thursday made a reference to questions raised by senior counsel Prashant Bhushan on whether the law minister was acting within his remit when he examined the status report on the coal blocks allotment investigations. The bench said in the order that it will address these questions in later hearings.
This,sources said,was seen as giving space to the executive to take any action before the next hearing,which is set for July 10. After this,Kumars chances of continuing in the cabinet reduced as pressure mounted on the Congress to act before the issue derailed its efforts to move on the Food Security Bill and the Land Acquisition Bill.
The ruling dispensation had earlier decided to defend the beleaguered ministers and chosen to brazen it out with the opposition,even sacrificing the post-recess budget session of Parliament,which could not transact any business due to disruptions by opposition parties.