CHENNAI/NEW DELHI: Senior Congress leader Jayanthi Natarajan, a onetime party spokesperson who was considered quite close to former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, Friday quit the party, sending shock waves through its political establishment. She accused the party leadership, particularly party vice president Rahul Gandhi, of letting her down, especially during her term as environment minister in the previous UPA government.
"I announce my resignation (from the party)," Natarajan said at a packed media conference in Chennai.
Congress leaders were quick to defend Rahul Gandhi and party chief Sonia Gandhi and said they did not interfere in the working of ministers.
Natarajan has joined people like G.K.Vasan and B.S. Gnanadesikan of the Tamil Nadu Congress to quit the party after saying they felt slighted by the party's national leadership.
She said: "I feel that the time has come now for me to rethink my association because what happened in the recent past. The Congress is no longer the Congress that I joined." She has been in the party for the last three decades and has been a four-time member of the Rajya Sabha.
A letter bomb that has put Congress in a fix
Natarajan, who was asked to put in her papers Dec 20, 2013, by then prime minister Manmohan Singh, said: "(I) received several requests and representations from Rahul Gandhi's office to ensure that the environment is protected."
"And according to these instructions...I did my duty. I had these projects investigated and some of them I stopped," she said and added that she got "specific inputs" from Rahul Gandhi's office. Natarajan said she has sufficient proof of Rahul Gandhi's specific requests on environmental clearance related to projects. "Let Rahul Gandhi refute it."
It was however not clear why she waited so long to air her frustration and grievances, since she had stepped down from the government in December 2013 and it has been a good eight months since the general elections led to the fall of the Congress-led UPA government.
Natarajan quit after writing a letter to Congress party president Sonia Gandhi. Her letter took the party including the Tamil Nadu unit by surprise but it sought to put a brave face. "The party will not be weakened by her absence," said Tamil Nadu Congress's chief E.V.K.S. Elangovan.
Congress leader and former union minister Veerappa Moily, however, said Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi never interfered.
"...I have not come across any instance where the Congress president or vice-president interfered with administration," Moily told reporters in Bangalore.
Congress leader Digvijay Singh too said in Delhi: "...it is totally wrong that either Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi ever interfered in the functioning of UPA government. Ministers were free to take decisions."
Grand-daughter of former Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Bhaktavatsalam, Natarajan hails from a family of Congress veterans who were associated with the Indian National Congress since its inception in 1885.
Her great-grandfather was a member of India's Constituent Assembly.
A Chennai-based lawyer, Natarajan entered politics as a Youth Congress worker in the 1980s. She was later noticed by the then Congress president Rajiv Gandhi. She went to the Rajya Sabha for the first time in 1986.
In a career that spans over 30 years, she has thrice been re-elected to the upper house of the parliament in 1992, 1997 and 2008.
Natarajan, who was frequently seen on television, was dropped as a Congress spokesperson in January 2014.
'Party treated me badly'
Natarajan said on becoming the environment minister, party president Sonia Gandhi had told her to maintain the Congress tradition of protecting the environment as was done by former prime ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. She was considered close to Rajiv Gandhi and was one of those who was present at Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated May 21, 1991.
Despite withstanding the "anger and wrath of all the colleagues who protested that economic progress was being blocked", Natarajan said she was told to resign from the cabinet.
A visibly miffed Natarajan said: "After the Congress, I intend to think about my life and future."
"I have absolutely no plan to join any party," she said and added that no BJP leader has met her in this connection.
She welcomed a government probe into environmental clearances given by her and demanded that the probe should be transparent.
"I have to set the record straight to uphold the legacy of my family and my reputation. It has been a bitter experience for me for the past one-and-half years. My own party treated me badly," she said.
"Why for a year everyone ruined my reputation and tarnished the legacy of my family," she asked. "I only followed the rules. Did not break the rules."
Charging the Congress of letting her down by allowing her name and her family's name to be tarnished, Natarajan refuted that she had let down the party by not contesting in the recent Lok Sabha polls.
"I was not in a condition to contest the Lok Sabha polls when my name, reputation and my family's legacy was being tarred," Natarajan said.
Many senior Congress leaders from Tamil Nadu, including former finance minister P. Chidambaram, did not contest in the Lok Sabha polls. The Congress party drew a blank in all the 39 seats in the state.