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(Siddharth Varadarajan is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University)
First there was the "Jayanthi tax", now there is her "letter bomb". But between the corruption allegation leveled against the former Environment Minister by Narendra Modi during the 2014 election campaign and her own litany of complaints against Congress president Sonia Gandhi and son Rahul, the public at large is still in the dark about what exactly went on in her ministry from the time of her appointment in July 2011 till her ouster in December 2013 and after.
In between Modi's charge that Jayanthi Natarajn levied (and presumably pocketed) a 'tax' from companies in order to clear their projects and her letter to Sonia Gandhi came the news of a likely Central Bureau of Investigation probe into her decision to clear two Jindal projects.
The Economic Times reported the matter on October 29 and said the CBI wanted to question her in this regard; other newspapers ran similar stories on November 1 and 2. Three days later, the former minister, who had clearly been nursing her grievances against the Congress high command since January 2014, decided to put pen to paper. Had her November 5, 2014 'letter bomb' been drafted a few weeks earlier, it might have had greater explosive charge.
The BJP hopes to go to town with Natarajan's revelations because they corroborate the well-known charge that Sonia and Rahul Gandhi interfered with the functioning of the government.
Her letter contains some supporting evidence, including this damaging passage: "In fact you have yourself conveyed your concern in this regard in letters written to me. In several cases including the stalled GVK power project regarding the Dhari Devi temple in Himachal Pradesh, the Lavasa project in Maharashtra, the Nirma cement plant in Gujarat and in several other cases I was given specific input, to make my decision. Apart from this Shri Pulok Chatterji, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister was in constant touch with me, and officers of the Ministry in guiding the decisions to be taken by the Ministry at that time."
If the decisions Natarajan finally took were consistent with the rules, there may not be much of a controversy here. But if she violated the rules under political pressure from the Congress party's "First Family", there could well be legal consequences for everybody concerned.
Natarajan also acknowledges "directives" from Rahul Gandhi in the Vedanta and Adani cases and how this earned her the wrath of her cabinet colleagues, though she notes that her decisions to deny environmental clearances here were later upheld by the courts. There is also this confusing statement she makes: "So in my decision-making I have factored in the party line despite all criticisms against me and therefore several decisions of mine were expressly overruled by the Prime Minister."
It is odd that Sonia and Rahul would expend energy getting a pliant environment minister to do their bidding only to have the PM, who by all accounts was just as pliant, "expressly overrule" those decisions.
Both in the letter and in her press conference in Chennai, Natarajan has been careful not to suggest the Congress party's "line" on the environment during her tenure was driven by monetary considerations. When asked about Modi's 'Jayanthi tax' charge, she said the Prime Minister should look into the matter and that she was "ready to be hanged" if it was proved that she had committed any wrongdoing.
She also denied she was going to join the BJP or any other party, though her comments distancing herself from the Congress position on 'Snoopgate' - the 2013 controversy involving the Gujarat police and Amit Shah illegally monitoring the calls of a young woman, allegedly on behalf of Modi -- suggests she is keeping that door open for later.
In political terms, there are six broad conclusions one may draw at this stage from the developing controversy:
1. The Gandhi family exercised power without responsibility, and their ministers were quite happy to go along with this so long as they were themselves politically favoured by the 'high command'. Jayanthi Natarajan's resignation confirms that all revolts of principle, in this milieu, begin after someone ends up sidelined.
2. As the Congress's fortunes continue to decline, more and more of its top-rung leaders will begin to develop a conscience, including some who continue to remain in the inner circle but who feel there is no political sense in remaining within the party.
3. The same process may also get underway in smaller regional parties where the Bharatiya Janata Party is trying to carve a bigger role for itself. Defections are possible from the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha, for example, or the Trinamool in Bengal or even the Akali Dal in Punjab.
4. The likelihood of strategic defections is directly proportional to the BJP's ability to deliver credible threats about past misdemeanours being probed by agencies like the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate. Here, it is significant to note reports that Natarajan met with Amit Shah in December 2014.
5. The Congress party, which initially saw great political value in defending the rights of the adivasis and farmers against companies that had environmentally-dodgy projects, made a switch towards the end of its tenure when it saw virtually the whole of Corporate India backing the BJP. Natarajan's letter captures this U-turn made by Rahul Gandhi very well. It is a different story that the Congress's change of tack did not cut any ice with large industrial donors.
6. The process of environmental clearances needs to be cleaned up so that rent-seeking opportunities by politicians, bureaucrats and companies are ended. The Modi government says it is doing precisely that but the method it has chosen - of dismantling or diluting many requirements - is very much an over-correction.