With just a week left before Delhi votes, the resignation of former minister and party spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan is especially inauspicious for the Congress. The party now has a new front to battle. While claiming that she quit the Congress because the central leadership snubbed her despite her long years of service to the party, Natarajan has also insinuated that Sonia and Rahul Gandhi interfered with her work as minister of state for environment and forests. Finance minister Arun Jaitley has responded by seeking a review of all UPA 2 projects and the BJP has trained its guns on the Gandhis. A stunned Congress has called the resignation “image bachao abhiyan”, hinting at the shadowy circumstances of her being dropped from the Manmohan Singh government.
The Congress has itself to blame for the mess. The move to set up the National Advisory Council (NAC) under Sonia Gandhi had weakened the prime minister’s authority substantially. That the NAC differed with the government on many issues further hindered policymaking. In her resignation, Natarajan has claimed that Sonia and Rahul Gandhi often directed her ministry on policy and clearances. She even lists specific projects that attracted the attention of the Gandhis. In other words, she has alleged that the NAC and Rahul Gandhi had assumed extra-constitutional roles and were intervening in the running of the government. Most unusually, several hundred files, many of them signed but nevertheless held back, were recovered from her office and residence after her resignation, as reported in this newspaper. Natarajan, who was a minister for 30 months before she was sacked, hints at what was wrong with the UPA set up. Two parallel power centres left the government listless and allowed ministries to be run as personal fiefs, triggering allegations ranging from policy paralysis to rent-seeking. The mess was most visible in the ministry of environment and forests, which had gained heft with the UPA’s green agenda and become a checkpost for project clearances. Ironically, Natarajan’s grievance is that the Gandhis seem to have ordered her sacking as minister though she always did their bidding. Her complaint doesn’t redeem her indifferent record as a minister.
There is a lesson for the Congress in Natarajan’s complaint that her repeated requests to meet the party leadership went unheeded. Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, who was “running a little busy” when Natarajan sought an appointment with him, has appeared hard pressed for time to manage party affairs. This is in stark contrast to the BJP leadership, which has understood the importance of constantly communicating with the public and cadres. Natarajan has specifically named Rahul Gandhi, and he must now come out and speak if he does not want to be made wholly irrelevant .