Manmohan Singh ‘looked the other way’ as corruption flourished, says Nirmala Sitharaman

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Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the annual World Bank Group meetings, the finance minister also expressed optimism about the “potential” of the Indian economy.

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, the finance minister 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%; and added that she was hopeful of India and the United States signing a trade deal soon based on the “intensity” of negotiations under way.

Asked about plans to reduce personal income tax, Sitharaman said, without denying it, “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 accepted wisdom about his failure 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.

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.

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