Saving Mr Bansal?

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In May 2013, the CBI arrested the then railway minister Pawan Bansal’s nephew, Vijay Singla, when he was caught red-handed accepting part of a bribe for fixing a top position in the Railway Board. With serious loopholes in the investigation coming to light, the CBI’s role is now under the scanner.

The arrests of Singla and others in the case came at a time when the UPA-2 government was already under a shadow for the Coalgate scam and alleged attempts to influence the probe into it. CBI Director Ranjit Sinha had showed the confidential status report of the probe to the then law minister Ashwani Kumar, Attorney General Goolam Vahanvati and two officials of the PMO, and modified parts of it based on their suggestions. The Supreme Court had found this seriously objectionable. As the PM was in charge of the coal ministry when the controversial coal block allocations were made, this gave rise to allegations that it was an attempt to save his skin. The CBI initially told the court that it had not shared the report with anyone, but had to backtrack after media reports nailed the lie.

With fingers pointing towards it, the CBI then took the daring step of arresting Singla and his associates in the Railway Board job-fixing case. The focus of the media exposures soon shifted to Bansal. The arrest of his nephew and his own dubious role in the case forced Bansal to resign from his post as railway minister on 10 May.

Despite Singla’s arrest and Bansal’s subsequent resignation, the evidence with TEHELKA proves that the CBI has always tried to shield Bansal in the matter. It avoided mentioning his relationship with Singla in the FIR lodged on 3 May. The report referred to Singla as an individual from Chandigarh without hinting at how he could have influenced the decision related to appointment of a railway board member. Bansal was not named in the list of the accused in the CBI chargesheet filed on 2 July.

Documents with TEHELKA reveal that the CBI has all along done nothing to either nail Bansal for his involvement in the scam or clear the allegations against him completely if, as CBI’s chargesheet says, he is not guilty. Instead of questioning his contradictory statements, the CBI turned him into a prosecution witness. The CBI had purportedly tapped the phone calls of 10 people, but chose to ignore two others whose conversations could have proved crucial in shedding light on the role of Bansal and other influential figures in the case. In every instance where the accused said something that went against Bansal’s favour, the CBI did not probe it further and it ignored whatever seemed to point towards the former minister’s involvement in the case.

TEHELKA has access to documents running into 3,000-odd pages pertaining to the investigation that would help unfold the story right from the beginning.

Three of the six Railway Board members — namely, Member (Mechanical), Member (Staff) and Member (Traffic) — were to retire on 30 April while Board Chairman Vinay Mittal was to retire on 30 June. Member (Electrical) Kulbhushan was to step into his shoes. Mahesh Kumar, who was the then GM (Western Railways), was eyeing the post of Member (Electrical), considered a ‘rewarding’ position as the official is responsible for deciding on contracts worth crores.

In January, Kumar revealed his intention to his friend and railway contractor, Narayana Rao Manjunath, MD of GG Tronics India Pvt Ltd. The CBI got wind of it and started tapping Manjunath’s phone calls from 28 January. Manjunath contacted Sandeep Goyal, Chandigarh-based railway contractor and head of Pyramid Electronics Ltd. Goyal is reportedly a close friend of Singla. The documents with TEHELKA have some references of the possible involvement of Bansal’s son Manish Bansal also in this case.

On 30 March, a rendezvous between Kumar and Goyal was set up at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai. Manjunath was also present. The meeting went on till past midnight and was followed over the next few days by a series of phone conversations between Kumar and Goyal. (These conversations were tapped by the CBI, TEHELKA has the transcripts).

Singla and his friend Ajay Garg were briefed by Goyal, and it was decided that Kumar will be invited to Chandigarh and introduced to Singla. A telephonic introduction was quickly fixed. A meeting in person could not be arranged as Singla went away to Germany. (Evidence with TEHELKA shows that Singla preferred to use landlines instead of cell phones and often asked people to contact him on Pawan Bansal’s home and office numbers)

By the end of February, the CBI had begun tapping Goyal’s calls as well. Kumar had allegedly told him that he had already approached Sonia Gandhi’s secretary, Ahmed Patel, regarding his promotion. TEHELKA has evidence to prove that a call was in fact made to Patel from Kumar’s number. But the CBI’s role becomes questionable as it never once tried to tap the phone calls of the person around whom the story revolves, Mahesh Kumar. It also did not find it necessary to keep an eye on Singla. Records reveal that Singla’s number was used to call Pawan Bansal’s home and office numbers several times. He even used to talk with Bansal’s OSD Vitul Kumar and son Manish regularly.

After Singla returned from Germany, a meeting was fixed with Kumar in Delhi on 7 April. A taxi driver, Pratap Singh, has told the CBI that Kumar hired his cab from the Railway Colony till Lalit Hotel at Barakhamba Road. He met Goyal and Singla there. Half an hour later, the trio left for Bansal’s official residence at 6, Ashoka Road. There they discussed the plan to make Kumar the Member (Electrical), but the issue of bribe was not brought up. Garg was informed of the developments on phone. After this the CBI started tapping Garg’s phone calls as he was in constant touch with Goyal.

On 18 April, a demand for a bribe to facilitate Kumar’s appointment as Member (Electrical) was made for the first time. On the same day, Bansal signed on the papers approving Kumar’s appointment to the Railway Board, but as Member (Staff), not Member (Electrical). One must look at the day’s events closely.

At 9.44 am, Goyal told Manjunath over phone that Rs 10 crore must be paid to ensure that Kumar is made Member (Electrical). Half of the sum would have to be paid in advance. He also said that since the post is going to give Kumar power to decide on contracts worth thousands of crores, it was but a paltry sum to pay. At 11.30 am, Goyal received a call from Garg who informed him that Mahesh was being made Member (Staff) for the time being, but he would later be appointed as Member (Electrical). Interestingly, Garg knew this already even though the minister would sign the papers regarding Kumar’s appointment only in the evening.

Kumar was not pleased with his appointment as Member (Staff). So he sent Manjunath to meet Singla in Chandigarh on 19 April. Kumar reportedly told Manjunath, “Tell him to make me Member (Elec.) directly instead of Member (Staff). For now, the appointment of the Member (Staff) should be put on hold. He should make the appointments to the two posts, and the post of chairman, later on.”

After meeting Kumar and his friends in Chandigarh, Manjunath called up Kumar and told him: “I have had a detailed discussion here. The railway minister does not want the post of Member (Staff) to remain vacant. But he will make you Member (Elect.) later. This has happened thrice before.” Interestingly enough, Bansal had also asked Vinay Mittal about the process of shuffling of board members a few days ago. Mittal told him that it had happened thrice before.

Kumar demanded that if he is not given his desired post, he must be allowed to retain his former office as GM (Western Railways) and also given charge of the Signal and Telecom office for two months. According to the CBI chargesheet, this would have enabled him “to open tenders as GM and pass them as board member later”.

On 20 April, Kumar was heard telling Goyal, “If he is making me Member (Staff), let him give me the charge of Signalling for two months. We have a strategy laid out for it… I’ll send proposals worth 400 crore within two months. And when I am Member (Elec.), we’ll only have tenders (to pass).”

So far no action had been taken by the ministry to fill up the vacant post of GM after Kumar’s promotion as Member (Staff), which could be an attempt to fulfil Mahesh’s desire to hold both the offices for two months. In a statement given to the CBI, Mittal says, “I tried to discuss the matter with the railway minister several times but he kept putting it off.”

Singla and his associates assured Kumar that his demands would be met in return for an immediate payment of Rs 2 crore. The rest of the money, Rs 8 crore, could be paid later in two instalments. Manjunath took it upon himself to arrange for the buyoff. As a railway contractor, Kumar’s promotion meant monetary gain for Manjunath as well. It was decided that Rs 1 crore would be paid instantly and another Rs 1 crore after a couple of days. Rahul Yadav, Sushil Daga, CV Venugopal, Samir Sandhir and Murali Krishan were roped in for funding. All of them are associated with the railways as contractors or suppliers.

The CBI tapped Rahul Yadav’s and Sushil Daga’s calls as well. Their phone records show that the ‘confidential’ information Mittal shared with Bansal about the shuffling of board members had spread like wildfire and they were all aware that it would ultimately result in Kumar’s recruitment as Member (Elec.).

On 1 May, Mahesh was appointed as Member (Staff) while remaining GM (Western Railways). The next day, Mittal again approached Bansal to discuss filling up of the GM’s post, but the minister continued to ignore it.

By that time Manjunath had managed to arrange Rs 50 lakh and sent it to Delhi from Benagluru through the hawala route. Half of this amount was debited from the accounts of GG Tronics while the other half was lent to Manjunath by another company in Hyderabad. Samir Sandhir collected the money by showing a 10-rupee note with the no. 97W536860 to a hawala broker at Lahori Gate, Old Delhi. Another Rs 10 lakh was borrowed from a company in which Yadav, Daga, Venugopal and Manjunath are partners. Rs 25 lakh was collected from Murali Krishan of Vijayawada while Rs 4.68 lakh was given by Daga. A total sum of Rs 89.68 lakhs had been collected by 2 May.

It was decided that Yadav and his associates would send their trusted men to deliver the money to Singla in Chandigarh. Manjunath instructed Yadav over the phone to split the money into two halves. On 3 May, the money was taken in two vehicles by two of Manjunath’s employees, Dharmendra and Vivek.

It was then that the CBI decided to take action. A little before 10 am on 3 May, Superintendent of Police Pradeep Kumar handed over the FIR to CBI inspector Neeraj Agarwal. It stated that the bribe money was going to be handed over to Singla and his associates. A team was immediately set up, which included DSP Surendra Malik, two inspectors and two constables. The team left Delhi for Chandigarh at around 10.35 am.

Meanwhile, a meeting between Bansal and Kumar took place. Manjunath allegedly made a call to Goyal to inform him about the dispatch of money and told him, “I met Mahesh Sir. He is happy with his appointment. In fact, he had a meeting with the railway minister yesterday. The minister told him that he had two months’ time to fulfil his duties as Member (Staff).” He added, “This is the right signal.” Bansal admits having met Kumar after his appointment but claims it was a mere courtesy call.

At 3 pm, the CBI team reached Chandigarh while Vivek and Dharmendra reached the city at around 5 pm. Sandhir and his associates were making anxious calls from Delhi to the two in order to keep track of their progress. The CBI was now tapping Vivek’s phone also. He was given instructions by Goyal to reach Singla’s office in Sector 28. The CBI team, along with two witnesses, reached Sector 28 at 5.30 pm. Some 15 minutes later, Vivek and Dharmendra also reached there. The CBI swooped in on Singla just as the bribe was being handed over to him. They seized all the mobiles, laptops and the cash present on the spot. The money was counted immediately in the presence of witnesses. Till 9.30 pm, the group sitting in Delhi had no clue of the CBI raid. They came to know of it only after it became breaking news on TV. Those arrested included Singla, Mahesh Kumar, Samir Daga, Manjunath and Rahul Yadav.

At this point, the role of the CBI in the entire episode must be scrutinised. During the interrogation, Goyal admitted that the money was meant as a bribe in exchange for the post. But he denied having knowledge of who it was going to be shared with and whether Bansal was informed about it by Singla. The CBI accepted his statement as it is, even though the call records prove that he had often mentioned having talked with Bansal directly. Singla also made a similar statement claiming that he was going to keep the money for himself, but being Bansal’s nephew, he planned to recommend Kumar to him. He stated that he had not even mentioned Kumar to Bansal until then. Although the already recorded conversations with the CBI exposed his lies, the chargesheet reveals that the CBI never questioned him about it. Had the CBI traced Singla’s calls, a lot of information would have been available and there would have been more clarity on Bansal’s role. There is evidence that some time before Singla’s arrest, several calls had been made from his phone to Bansal at his home and office, his OSD Vitul Kumar and his son Manish.

But there are people who do not believe that CBI did not tap Kumar and Singhla’s phones. It is being alleged that the CBI has Singla’s phone records but does not have the courage to go public with it. A similar reasoning can be given for Mahesh Kumar also.

By the time it filed the chargesheet on 2 July, the CBI had interrogated 90 witnesses. The testimonies raise several questions on Bansal’s role, but the CBI decided to make him a prosecution witness. His own statements leave scope for further probing, but the CBI leaves it at that. For instance, he claimed that Singla had visited him at his office only thrice during his entire term. He added that Singla was just a relative. But almost everyone from the chairman of the Railway Board to Bansal’s official driver knew him very well. Vinay Mittal told the CBI that Singla often met Bansal at his office. The driver also confirmed it. He was also among the few relatives of Bansal who attended his oath ceremony and was also with Bansal during the Rail budget presentation.

Bansal was also asked why he had not taken any decision about the post of GM (West) and let Kumar continue with it. He replied that he did not have enough time for it as the post went vacant on 1 May and Kumar was suspended after two or three days. He added that he was not in favour of giving additional charge to anyone and so after Arunendra Kumar’s promotion as Railway board member, the GM’s charge was taken from him just after 2 days. This statement goes against Bansal since both the promotions (that of Arunendra and Mahesh) had taken place at the same time. If Arunendra was relieved of his duties, why was not Mahesh relieved, even after being pressed by the board chairman several times?

Another matter to which the CBI has failed to pay attention involves Singla and his associates. There is a list of transfers, appointments and promotions at top administrative positions which they were targeting. Singla and his associates were aware of all the internal matters and decisions of the ministry. How could he have this kind of access?

The whole investigation appears flawed when analysed closely. Why did the CBI limit its investigation to Singla and not probe further in spite of the presence of several leads? Why did it never tap the phone calls of Singla, Mahesh and Manish Bansal (another ‘private person’)? Why did it not question the statements of Bansal and others, which were clearly contradictory? Is it because of the political pressure that the Centre puts on the CBI? Can the CBI’s loopholes be attributed to the fact that the probe was done only to clear the tainted reputation of the PM caught in the midst of Coalgate and Bansal was never the target? These are questions that still remain unanswered as the case awaits a closure.

Translated from TEHELKA Hindi by Naushin Rehman

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The Process of Appointment to the Railway Board

The Railway Board of India comprises six members besides the Chairman: Member (Engineering), Member (Mechanical), Member (Staff), Member (Electrical), Member (Traffic) and Finance Commissioner. There are a total of 17 railway zones in the country, each headed by a General Manager referred to as GM (Open Line).
The post of a Railway Board member is equivalent to a secretary to the Government of India and the Chairman is equivalent to a Chief Secretary. That is why the final decision on their appointment is taken by the ACC (Appointment Committee of the Cabinet).

First, a consultation between the Chairman and the Railway Minister takes place where the two discuss the filling up of a vacant post. After getting a nod from the minister to go ahead with the recruitment, the Chairman asks the Joint Secretary (Confidential) to prepare a list of eligible candidates.
The basic eligibility criteria for the post are the following:

1) The candidate must have a two years’ service left

2) He must have served as GM (Open Line) for one year

3) An additional criterion for the Finance Commissioner is that he must have served as GM in Indian Railways Accounts Service

If the candidate falls short of it, the seniormost GM (from the date of promotion) in the respective cadre, having at least a year of service left, is promoted as a member.

The Joint Secretary (Confidential) then sends the list of suitable candidates to the CVC through the Advisor (Vigilance). After the CVC grants its approval, the JS (Confidential) prepares the proposal under the supervision of the Chairman. It includes all the information about the candidates, their service records, a seniority list, a copy of clearance from Vigilance, rules and regulations regarding appointment to the post, etc.

The selection process of Railway Board Members is an extremely confidential matter. The proposal is secretly typed by the Joint Secretary (Confidential) himself. The file does not have a dispatch number and the Chairman himself carries it to the Railway Minister. Not even the Personal Secretary or PRO of the minister knows about the contents. After being signed by the minister, the file is signed by the Chairman and taken for approval to the ACC, which in this case includes the PM, the Home Minister and the Railway Minister. In the present case, P Rajshekharan, Joint Secretary (Confidential), prepared the proposal for Mahesh Kumar and the then Chairman Vinay Mittal took it to Bansal.

The Board Members are chosen from eight different cadres. For instance, Member (Engineering) comes from the Indian Railways Service of Engineers (IRSE) and Member (Electrical) comes from the Indian Railways Service of Electrical Engineers (IRSEE). Only the Chairman and Member (Staff) can be chosen from any of the cadres. A Member (Staff) can, therefore, be shifted to any other position as per the qualification. Three such lateral transfers have taken place since 1986. According to the CBI, Mahesh Kumar was eyeing the post of Member (Electrical) through such a shifting.

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