NEW DELHI: Rejecting the attack on Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi by former environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan as being "malicious" and driven by "ulterior motives", party spokesman Anand Sharma today raked up corruption allegations against her.
Questioning her delayed resignation from Congress and the claims that Gandhi's office was engaged in a vilification campaign against her after she had stepped down as a Union minister in 2013, Sharma dared her to file a defamation case against Prime Minister Narendra Modi saying it was he who used to target her with the "Jayanthi tax" barb. "If Jayanthi is offended that her reputation has been sullied, she should not complain about Sonia (Gandhi) and Rahul. They have not done it.
"She should file a defamation case against Modi, who repeatedly used the 'Jayanthi tax' barb during the Lok Sabha poll campaign," said Sharma.
Further targeting Natarajan, he said that questions about her functioning as a minister were raised from time to time by industrialists, including at a CII roundtable meet in Mumbai in August, 2013.
"In Mumbai, they (industrialists) did complain to me about her bitterly... They said in the presence of senior secretaries of the Government of India that files were cleared from Chennai. Specific complaints were made in their presence.
"Why should a Cabinet Minister take files home. I did not take files pertaining to my ministry to Shimla. They (industrialists) complained that they were asked to take the files to a particular OSD there... They told me that I should understand the reason when I'm asked to go to a specific OSD."
Sharma claimed that hundreds of files had to be collected from Chennai after she had resigned. The former commerce minister also said that if need be, the industrialists who had attended the Mumbai meet may be asked to say publicly now what they had claimed during the CII event.
To a specific question on whether he was saying that there were corruption allegations against her, Sharma said, "Well, that is what they (industrialists) complained about. There was a perception... that question has to be answered by Jayanthi or Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who frequently attacked her with the 'Jayanthi tax' barb."
Referring to Natarajan's statement that as a minister in the UPA-II government, she did not want to attack Modi on the 'Snoopgate' issue but was told that the party at the highest level wanted her to do so, Sharma said it was a "late apology" and a "desperate damage control" exercise and accused her of "political dishonesty".
He also raised doubts over Natarajan's brief mention of the name of an industrialist perceived to be close to the prime minister, saying, "Jayanthi definitely had ulterior motives."
"Why should she mention the name of the particular industrialist. She is also regretting having spoken on 'Snoopgate'. Was it not her duty, being a woman, a lawyer and a Congressperson then, to speak on the issue?" said Sharma.
Downplaying Natarajan's charge that Rahul Gandhi sent frequent communications to her regarding NGOs' objections to certain projects, Sharma said it is "laughable" and cannot be construed as interference in a minister's work.
"There was never any interference from Gandhi's office. I held the ministry of commerce. I never felt so. Gandhi had only intervened to get facilities for poor weavers. If she is referring to the forwarding of some representations by NGOs, I ask her what is wrong in that.
"Are NGOs criminal? What is wrong if a public representative forwards the concerns expressed by people. She is maliciously presenting as a direction what is merely the forwarding of petitions by NGOs. There is a motive. Otherwise, why has she been silent all this time?" he asked.
As to Natarajan complaining about not getting an audience with Sonia or Rahul to present her side, Sharma said there were reasons for that and reminded her that it was the same leadership which had made her a minister.
"She need not ask the question to the Congress President... as to what was being held against her. She has the answers," the Sharma said.
"What she has said is very unfortunate and is in very poor taste. She has tried to do a late damage control and dragged in the Congress Vice President's office... Is she trying to act at somebody's behest after such a long time.
"Is she trying to mend fences with the leader who is now the prime minister, who had actually levelled all these accusations?" he asked.
Another senior Congress leader and Natarajan's former Cabinet colleague, M Veerappa Moily, said, "May be she is part of the grand design to malign the party and its leadership... I have handled the ministry many times and have not come across any instance where the Congress President or the Vice President interfered in the administration."
Holding that her remarks and resignation were "motivated", Moily said a minister is not expected to say that he or she did something because of interference by somebody as saying so means that the person was "unfit" for being a minister.