(Ashok Malik is a columnist and writer living in Delhi)
Grant the Congress and the Nehru-Gandhis this: they retain an extraordinary ability to influence the media in New Delhi.
Sanjaya Baru's The Accidental Prime Minister referred to an intellectual ecosystem that sustained the Congress' First Family in the 1990s, even when it was not in power. The Jayanthi Natarajan allegations have established the verity of Baru's words. As a senior BJP politician put it recently: "[B.S.] Yeddyurappa stayed on the front pages for a year, but Jayanthi Natarajan's charges have disappeared in a day!"
Natarajan was Environment Minister in UPA II, being asked to resign 100 days before the 2014 elections were to take place. At the time, the Congress planted stories that she was being punished for delaying clearances for major economic projects and sacking her was a peace offering to big business. In her letter to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Natarajan charges the reports against her were planted by Rahul Gandhi's associates and aides.
Natarajan also suggests she delayed decisions on specific projects - involving specific business houses and specific states, usually run by non-Congress governments - only when Rahul and Sonia Gandhi asked her to. Do note this does not absolve Natarajan. While she denies any charges of corruption, she does admit she set aside her professional judgement and ministerial disinterestedness to follow orders of party leaders who were not part of the government. Even if there is no financial transaction involved, is this not irregular and does it not amount to corruption in the wider sense of the term?
The Congress has hit back by saying Natarajan was removed following accusations of corruption. However, it has not explained why these accusations were not investigated. Spokespersons have offered the lame excuse that "actionable evidence" was not available. Why was "actionable evidence" not pursued? What of Natarajan's claim that she has further evidence of "advice" offered to her by the Gandhi family? Not too many in the media are asking these questions and the Congress is getting away lightly.
Natarajan was not a newcomer to the Congress. She represented the fourth generation in her family to have entered party politics. Her grandfather was Chief Minister of Madras state (now Tamil Nadu). She was considered close to Rajiv Gandhi and was at Sriperumbudur in May 1991 when he was so tragically assassinated. Absent a mass base or a pocked borough, her career was dependent on her perceived proximity to the Nehru-Gandhis.
In deciding to burn her bridges with the Congress' controlling dynasty, Natarajan has in effect ended her political career. She is unlikely to be wooed by other parties because she is not really a vote-catching asset. She has left the party that was her natural home and that sheltered her. In a sense, she has committed political suicide. Why?
There are two inter-connected reasons for this. First, when she was removed from government, Natarajan felt she was being framed for the economic decline in the dying years of the UPA. She argued policies of previous years in other ministries, including the Finance Ministry, and the actions and delays of her predecessor, Jairam Ramesh, were much more to blame. That aside, the overall philosophy of the Sonia-Rahul Congress was anything but encouraging of economic growth.
Heaven knows who did what deal, but when the Central Bureau of Investigation began looking into some of the cases, the Nehru-Gandhi family completely dumped Natarajan. She was on her own. Mrs and Master Gandhi protected their reputation. The reputation of Natarajan and her clan - which has some social standing in Chennai, even if it is politically irrelevant in contemporary Tamil Nadu - counted for nothing.
Is Natarajan's conduct entirely above board? To be fair, it is not. Even those who sympathize with her predicament will have a hundred questions. The point is, there should be at least half as many questions for Rahul and Sonia. More important, what message does it send to Congress loyalists if they cannot trust their party leadership to stand by them simply for obeying instructions?
In good times, a leader delivers votes. In sombre times, a leader evokes faith, gathers his troops and keeps them united. It is so different in the Congress. In the past eight months, since the defeat in the Lok Sabha election, the Congress machinery has been summoned to defend Robert Vadra's land deals, defend the creative usurpation of assets in the National Herald case, and defend the Nehru-Gandhis against Jayanthi Natarajan.
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