Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi on Wednesday defended himself for the first time against former environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan's accusation that he interfered in the approval projects by saying he had asked her not to clear schemes that could affect the poor.
Speaking at an election rally at Bhalswa in north Delhi, Gandhi admitted that he had directed Natarajan not to approve projects in tribal areas without looking into the concerns of the poor. "Yes, I had spoken to Jayanthi Natarajan and told her that she should work for the welfare of tribals and the poor," he said.
Gandhi further said he was here to do politics for the poor and not for the rich. "I have fought for the poor and will continue to fight for them. I am not going to do politics for four or five rich corporate houses," he said.
He alleged the Bharatiya Janata Party had propped up Natarajan and pushed her to speak against the Congress.
BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra refuted the charge and described it as a desperate bid by Gandhi to find some sort of footing for the Delhi assembly elections scheduled for February 7. "Natarajan is the Congress leader of some standing," he said.
Natarajan created a stir last week with a scathing attack on Gandhi, alleging that he publicly criticized her decisions before last year's general election that after instructing her to stall projects in tribal areas. She said this was an attempt to woo industries.
She also said she could not remain in a party that has an atmosphere of lies and suffocation.
Gandhi had said at Niyamgiri in Odisha that he would not allow the sacred hills of the tribal people to be used for the mining of bauxite for Vedanta Aluminum. He had earlier described himself as a 'sipahi' (soldier) of tribals.
After that, Gandhi's office reportedly called up Natarajan to ensure that the project in Niyamgiri was not approved until the rights and interests of the local tribal people were protected.
She did not approve the project but held back more than 100 projects across the country without giving valid reasons, causing distress among investors. Despite repeated requests from the PMO, Natarajan refused to approve the projects.
People of all 12 gram sabhas (village councils) in the area had unanimously rejected the bauxite mining project. The BJD government held five gram sabhas in Kalahandi district and seven in Rayagada in villages inhabited by Dongria, Jharania and Kutia Kandha tribes in compliance with the Supreme Court's order that gave local residents the right to decide on the plan to extract bauxite from Niyamgiri hills.
In August 2010, Gandhi had visited Lanjigarh in Kalahandi district for "victory celebrations" after the union environment and forest ministry rejected forest clearance for the bauxite mining project.
In 2013, Natarajan was sacked as the minister on the day Gandhi was to address a meeting of investors at FICCI in the capital. Gandhi referred to the change in the environment ministry and said green clearances would not be a bottleneck for businesses. The then petroleum minister Veerappa Moily, who was given charge of the environment ministry, cleared more than 100 projects, including the Posco Steel Plant in Odisha, to which there was opposition from local residents.
The Congress has maintained that protecting the rights of tribal people is essential for ending their exploitation and sense of alienation, which is pushing them towards left-wing extremism.
The Congress leadership has often spelt out its concerns over illegal mining in tribal areas, saying it has profound political, economic and social implications.
Video: What Rahul Gandhi had to say