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Friday, Nov 22, 2019

Ex-PM Manmohan Singh ‘looked the other way’ as corruption flourished, says Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman

Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman was responding to former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s criticism of her criticism of him and former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan for the poor state of public sector banks

india Updated: Oct 18, 2019 20:17 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times, Washington
New York: Union Minister for Finance and Corporate Affairs Nirmala Sitharaman (L) speaks on 'Indian Economy: Challenges and Prospects' at Columbia University in New York.
New York: Union Minister for Finance and Corporate Affairs Nirmala Sitharaman (L) speaks on 'Indian Economy: Challenges and Prospects' at Columbia University in New York. (Photo: PTI)
         

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman doubled down on her criticism of the UPA government’s handling of public sectors banks and attacked former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh personally Thursday, saying he had “looked the other way” as “wrong-doings” mounted and “cronies” cornered loans on his watch,

Sitharaman was responding to Singh’s criticism of her criticism of him and former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan for the poor state of public sector banks and Singh’s remarks that the BJP government was “obsessed” with fixing blame for the slowdown instead of finding a way to revive the economy.

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the annual World Bank Group meetings, Finance Minister Sitharaman also expressed optimism about the “potential” of the Indian economy saying it remains the fastest growing in the world despite a reduced growth projection by IMF — of 6.1%.

On India-US trade deal, the finance minister said she was hopeful of an agreement being signed soon on the basis of the “intensity” of negotiations under way, and that there has been a narrowing of differences. US officials are expected to visit India in the first week of November for further talks.

Asked about plans to reduce personal income tax, Sitharaman said, without denying it, notably, “You will get to know if there is any”.

The finance minister spoke most forcefully, however, when addressing questions about her criticism of Singh and Rajan at Columbia University on Tuesday. She had said then that Indian public sector banks went through their “worst phase” on Singh and Rajan’s watch and that loans were routinely advanced to “cronies” at the time and over phone on occasions, dispensing with procedures.

“I respect Dr Manmohan Singh for telling me not to do the blame-game,” Sitharaman said at the briefing, addressing the former prime minister’s criticism, but added, defending her criticism of the UPA government while outside the country, a vague red-line that is invoked by political parties to deal selectively with sensitive political issues.

“But recalling when and what went wrong during a certain period is absolutely necessary to put it in context,” Sitharaman added.

And she went on to attack Singh personally for not intervening to stem the rot when he could as prime minister, drawing upon a widespread perception that he failed to curb corruption in his government while staying clear of it himself. “We have not given any loans to cronies, we have never supported any wrong-doings and looked the other way as prime minister.”

Sitharaman started this exchange with her remarks at the Columbia University event, which, she said in her defense, was in response to a question that cited Rajan’s criticism of the Modi government’s economic policy — that it was based on centralized leadership and lacked coherent narrative..

And with election season in full swing in India, Prime Minister Singh had jumped in with a sharp response. “The government is obsessed with trying to fix blame on its opponent, thus it is unable to find a solution that will ensure the revival of the economy,” he told reporters in Mumbai on Thursday as he also attacked the government on other issues.

On Thursday, the finance minister took on both, the former prime minister and the RBI governor. The government has a “coherent narrative” and knows how to handle the economy and that it’s a “listening government”, but it has to be stated, she said “why in some areas there are difficulties … and while recalling what went wrong it certainly pertains to a period in which Dr Manmohan Singh was the prime minister Shri Raghuram Rajan was the governor”.