Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman speaks in the Lok Sabha during the Budget session of Parliament, in New Delhi, Friday, Feb. 9, 2024.
| Photo Credit: PTI
Fugitive economic offenders like Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi, and Sanjay Bhandari will be extradited to India, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said on February 9, even as she charged the former Congress chief Sonia Gandhi of being a ‘Super Prime Minister’ in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) years, blaming “rudderless” leadership for the “one big-ticket scam a year” decade between 2004-2014.
Speaking on the White Paper on the Economy in the Lok Sabha, the Minister said it was a serious document tabled with responsibility as it impacted the lives of people and shall serve as a record for posterity. “…Entire India’s youth should know what effort it took for a Prime Minister with a vision to restore India to its glory,” Ms. Sitharaman said, comparing the Commonwealth Games “flop show” to the “grand” success of G-20 events.
In her opening remarks, she went beyond the UPA decade to remind the House about the LIC of India being forced to invest in an ailing West Bengal firm run by Haridas Mundhra in the 1950s, which culminated in the then Finance Minister T.T. Krishnamachari’s resignation as “a sacrificial lamb”. She also talked about former State Bank of India chairman R.K. Talwar being forced out of office in 1976 when he refused to grant a particular loan to someone close to the government of the day.
She later explained these cases were critical to understand that corruption is a part of the Congress’ DNA. Stressing that national security was compromised in the UPA years, the environment had become a bottleneck for project clearances, hurting development, and the leadership of the day “failed” the country.
Terming the National Advisory Council (NAC) headed by Ms. Gandhi as an “extra-constitutional body worse than a Kitchen Cabinet”, the Minister asked why 710 government files were sent to the NAC office. On Congress MPs’ claims that Aadhaar, MGNREGA, and direct benefit transfers were UPA’s projects, Ms. Sitharaman noted that Ministries had objected to the Aadhaar project at the time.
“Andolanjeevi [a person who makes a living through protests] and BhrashtacharJeevi [a person who survives on corruption] gave birth to the ‘Jayanti Tax’. Licence Permit Raj was brought back through the Environment Tax,” she said, pointing to a rise in average time taken for green clearances from 86 days in 2011 to 316 days in 2014. This has now come down to 70 days, she added, with this government balancing development and environment needs.
Stating that the Enforcement Directorate (ED) was told to “keep quiet to facilitate money laundering” during the UPA years and kept like a “caged bird”, she noted that just 102 prosecutions took place then, compared to 1,200 since 2014. Zero persons were convicted in their tenure, while the number is 58 in our watch, she said, attributing it to the ED being given the “independence to stop money laundering”.
“We have got extradition orders passed in four cases [of fugitive economic offenders] and are extraditing them,” she said, noting that 12 people have been labelled fugitive economic offenders under their watch, while the number of such extraditions was zero during the UPA years.
On why the paper was tabled now, the Minister cited Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remarks in 2015-16 about refraining from presenting such a white paper at that time in national interest, emphasising that not a single investor would have come to the country and citizens would have lost faith in the system.
“Now, with 10 years of sincere effort to clear up the economy, governance, and making sure that we are not going to stagnate because of the legacy that was left behind… We have 10 years which can therefore be periodically compared with those 10 years… Responsibly, we took the challenge of sorting things out, and now we have put it out there,” she said on the timing of the white paper.