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Hours after former prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh shredded Modi government’s economic reforms agenda to bits, Arun Jaitley says demonetisation was an “ethical drive”

It was to be another self-laudatory attempt over the government’s economic reforms agenda and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation decision but Union finance minister Arun Jaitley’s media briefing, on Tuesday, seemed more like an exercise meant to rebut a strong attack launched by former prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh earlier in the day.

Hours after Dr Manmohan Singh tore into the Modi government terming demonetisation as a “reckless step” meant purely to “reap political benefits” and listed the disruption that it, along with the GST rollout, caused in the Indian economy, finance minister Arun Jaitley was forced to take the moral high ground on the issue of noteban.

Addressing the media in New Delhi on the eve of demonetisation’s first anniversary, Jaitley said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision that withdrew from circulation 86 per cent of legal tenders in the Indian economy in one single swoop was an “ethical drive and a moral step” that made corruption difficult.

While Dr Singh, during his address to traders and businessmen in Ahmedabad, reiterated that demonetisation was “an organised loot and legalised plunder”, Jaitley countered saying the loot is what happened in the 2G scam, Commonwealth Games and allocation of coal blocks; harking back to the financial scandals that had tarnished the Manmohan Singh-led UPA II government. It was largely the public outcry over these repeated scams, along with a high-pitched anti-Congress campaign by Narendra Modi that had catapulted the BJP to power in May 2014.

An anti-black money drive is (an) ethical drive, a moral step. And what is morally and ethically correct has to be politically correct,” Jaitley said.

While Dr Singh had quoted a series of facts, government data and economic indices to substantiate his allegations that demonetisation and the GST rollout had wreaked havoc on the Indian economy, Jaitley was forced to launch a largely political attack, devoid of substance that could actually prove the merits of noteban and the unified tax regime.

The finance minister said while the 10 years of UPA government were characterised by “policy paralysis”, the Modi government introduced structural reforms to make India a developed nation and give it a cleaner economy.

“The Congress’ main aim is to serve the family whereas BJP wants to serve the nation,” Jaitley said. Reiterating his earlier defence of Modi’s demonetisation exercise, the finance minister said that note ban was aimed at making India a more formal economy with a broader tax base.

“Less cash in the system may not end corruption but makes corruption difficult,” Jaitley claimed, adding that terror funding got “squeezed” post-demonetisation, though he failed to give any evidence to substantiate this claim.

The finance minister also put out a note on Facebook in defence of the demonetisation decision – whose first anniversary on Tuesday will be celebrated by the Centre as ‘anti-black money day’ while the Opposition will observe it as a ‘black day’ – which largely focused on rhetoric and adjectives that sounded more like poll slogans meant to hail the noteban.

Jaitley hailed noteban as “watershed moment in the history of Indian economy” and claimed that “the next generation will view post November, 2016 national economic development with a great sense of pride as it has provided them a fair and honest system to live in”.

However, he failed to counter the allegation that Dr Singh, several economists and Opposition leaders have made against demonetisation – that the initiative triggered a downward trajectory for India’s GDP and wreaked havoc in the country’s informal economy, which is still the largest job creator domestically.

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