On Thursday, a day after receiving flak from party colleague Yashwant Sinha, Finance Minister (FM) Arun Jaitley described his predecessor as a “job applicant at 80”.
At the release of a book, India @70 Modi @3.5, the FM said, “Probably, a more appropriate title for the book would have been India @70, Modi @3.5 and a job applicant @ 80.”
Refraining from taking names, he accused Sinha of acting in concert with former finance minister P Chidambaram in criticising him.
Jaitley, who is facing criticism for overseeing the economy to slip to its slowest pace of growth in three years, said he had done a little research to pull out what Sinha and Chidambaram had to say about each other in the past. “One said of the other: Chidambaram will have to be born again to match my record as finance minister. He then linked finance minister Chidambaram to an incompetent doctor for failing to curb India’s alarming fiscal deficit. And then went on and said I accuse him of running the economy down to the ground,” he said in an apparent reference to comments made by Sinha.
Sinha, he said, had accused Chidambaram of being “the most conceited person” who bugged his phones.
Not to be left behind, Chidambaram had called Sinha’s tenure during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government as the “worst years since liberalisation”, he recalled.
Jaitley said he did not have the luxury as yet of being a former finance minister (Sinha) nor did he have the luxury of being a former finance minister who has turned a columnist (Chidambaram). Being a former finance minister, “I can conveniently forget a policy paralysis (during UPA-II). I can conveniently forget the 15 per cent NPAs of 1998 and 2002 (during Sinha’s term as finance minister). I can conveniently forget the $4-billion reserve left in 1991 and I can switch over and change the narrative.”
In a newspaper article on Wednesday, Sinha had criticised Jaitley for running the economy aground. That afternoon, Chidambaram praised Sinha for speaking “truth to power”, and for echoing what the Congress had been saying about the state of the economy.
Jaitley recalled the advice given to him by party senior L K Advani when he spoke in Parliament in 1999 on the Bofors issue, of not making personal comments while speaking on issues. He said he had some very distinguished predecessors, including a former President (Pranab Mukherjee) and a former Prime Minister (Manmohan Singh) and the other predecessors, who had “decided to act in concert”. “Because speaking on persons and then bypassing the issues is something which is very easily done,” he said.
Earlier, Bibek Debroy, the chief of the PM’s Economic Advisory Council and co-editor of the book, compared Sinha to a quack who had mistaken a common cold that the economy has caught to something as life-threatening as chikungunya.
At the event, Jaitley admitted to “some teething troubles” because of the goods and services tax (GST) roll-out, but refused to agree to claims that the economy had entered a slowdown phase.
The FM said direct tax figures had recorded an increase of 15.7 per cent, and the “so-called slowdown which some visualise hasn’t impacted that (direct tax collection)”. The GST collections in the first two months had met the target and the revenue will see further surge, he said.
“We have only completed two months under the GST regime.
As a base year of 2015-16, we had to give two hikes of 14 per cent each to the states, and for both the months (July and August), with some part of the compensation cess, we are well within that figure,” he said. The FM said he did not “imagine that states will reach break-even points within two to three months... As we walk down next couple of months we probably will move up”.
On electoral bonds, the FM said the move was in the final stages of implementation. On price rise, he said, the government had inherited inflation of 9-10 per cent and subsequently brought it down to a respectable level. On the criticism of rising inflation by the Opposition, he said, “3.36 per cent is also inflation (to them). Of course, system needs inflation otherwise economy will go into a recession.” He also said the Narendra Modi-led government brought down the fiscal deficit and current account deficit and maintained the rupee at the appropriate value. “We not only opened up several sectors we made the entry (of foreign investors) smoother... India attracted highest FDI year-on-year," he said.
Jaitley admitted that demonetisation had some short-term impact but added it would lead to positives in the medium and long term — the increase in tax base being a positive fallout.
Sinha continued with his criticism of Jaitley on Thursday. He said any government “should listen” when people like former prime minister Manmohan Singh or Chidambaram speak. In a rebuttal to his father, Minister of State for Civil Aviation Jayant Sinha said, in a newspaper column, that several articles have been written on the challenges facing the Indian economy. “Unfortunately, these articles draw sweeping conclusions from a narrow set of facts, and quite simply miss the fundamental structural reforms that are transforming the economy,” Jayant said.
Referring to his son’s defence of the government, Yashwant Sinha sought to know why Jayant was shifted from the finance ministry “if he was so competent” to answer the concerns raised by him. Jayant was shifted out of the finance ministry in July last year.
Later in the evening, the Congress criticised Jaitley for avoiding the issues raised by Sinha and Chidambaram.