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Jaitley returns fire on Sinha, Chidambaram

Under attack from within and rivals, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on Thursday hit back at Yashwant Sinha calling him a “job applicant at 80” and said “acting in tandem” with Congress leader P. Chidambaram would not change facts.

He also referred to the attacks made against each other by Sinha and Chidambaram — both former Finance Ministers — in the past to wonder about the newfound bonhomie between the two.

At the launch of a book titled “India @70, Modi @3.5” edited by Bibek Debroy and Ashok Malik, Jaitley said: “Probably a more appropriate title for the book would have been ‘India @70, Modi @3.5 and a job applicant @80′”, an apparent dig at Sinha who is 84.

Jaitley’s remarks came a day after Sinha set off a political storm by writing a stinging critique against the Finance Minister’s management of the economy and held him personally responsible for the continuous economic downturn.

He strongly defended the demonetisation and implementation of GST, the two key issues on which Sinha had attacked the government, holding them responsible for pulling the economy down.

“There are always attempts to change the narrative. I don’t have the luxury of being a former Finance Minister. Nor do I have the luxury of being a former Finance Minister who has turned a columnist. And therefore, I can conveniently forget about a policy paralysis, I can conveniently forget the 15 per cent NPAs (non-performing assets) of 1998-2002, I can conveniently forget the $4 billion reserves left in 1991. And I can switch over and change the narrative,” he said in digs both at Chidmabaram and Sinha.

Recalling a parliamentary debate on Bofors in 1999 shortly after he entered the Rajya Sabha, Jaitley said veteran leader L.K. Advani complimented him for his speech but advised him to focus on issues rather than persons.

“I have tried to follow it. I may have breached this rule once in a while. I have some very distinguished predecessors in the Finance Ministry. One is a former Prime Minister and one is a former President. But I am not referring to them. The others (Sinha and Chidambaram) have decided to act in concert because speaking on persons and bypassing the issues is something easily done.”

Jaitley said he had done some research before coming to the event and found that Sinha had said that Chidambaram will have to be born again to match his record in the Finance Ministry, that Chidmabaram was like an incompetent doctor who failed to curb India’s alarming deficit and accused him of being the most conceited person. He then went on to accuse that Chidambaram had ordered bugging of Sinha’s phones.

“Today, with complete responsibility I want to say that when I raised the Aircel-Maxis issue, he (Chidambaram) ordered my phones to be bugged,” Jaitley said.

The Finance Minister then went on to recollect what Chidambaram had said about Sinha.

“I thought Sinha was happy to remain a distant memory for the people of India. However, since he seemed determined to remain relevant in his party I am obliged to recall his record during his four years as Finance Minister. I may point out that 2001, 2002, 2003 were the worst years since liberalisation in terms of growth. And Vajpayee had to force him out. I am glad they did not have Advani to advise them. Acting in tandem won’t change facts,” Jaitley said, quoting Chidamabaram.

Talking about the economy and the new initiatives, Jaitley said the new normal of Prime Minister Modi was to target the shadow economy.

Earlier, there was no way one could do business or buy property without indulging in black money, he said.

Since the UPA government did not do anything from 2011, the first decision of the government was to set up an SIT on black money, give an opportunity for the people to come out with disclosure of assets, enact a stringent legislation on benami and worked with G20 to get real time information on people stashing money abroad.

Referring to attack on demonetisation, Jaitley said the effort was to subvert the narrative as if the exercise was aimed at confiscation of money.

But demonetisation was intended to make sure that anonymous tender gets identified with the owner, he said, adding those who cannot justify the deposits will have to pay taxes.

Changing the old normal was never on the political agenda of the UPA, he said.

On GST, Jaitley said all decisions were taken by consensus, including the Finance Ministers of the Congress-ruled states who were very supportive.

He said normally people are accused of delaying but in this case he was being accused of pushing things.

Referring to the political scene and ideological battle, he said that the space left vacant by the Congress was being occupied by the BJP, which becomes the pole “that will become the natural protector of the state”.

In an apparent reference to Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi going to JNU at the height of a student agitation last year, Jaitey said if Indira Gandhi or Rajiv Gandhi were at the helm they would not have taken such a course of aligning with the Left.