Oil Minister Hardeep Singh Puri on Wednesday responded to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi's 'pickpocket' barb at the government over the levy of high taxes on petrol and diesel, and described him as a "jeb katra" who would not understand what capital expenditure is.
Speaking at the Times Now Summit, Puri said he was ready to debate on economic progress and development under the Modi government.
"How do you look at economic development, progress?... There has been record hike in capital expenditure. That is what is economic progress is," he said responding to the question on Gandhi's tweet of November 1 that cautioned against "pickpockets" as he charged the government of "profiteering" from record high fuel tax and "fleecing" common man.
Gandhi tweeted "jebkatro se savdhan" (beware of pickpockets) before the government's November 3 announcement of a Rs 5 per litre cut in excise duty on petrol and Rs 10 a litre reduction in the tax on diesel to bring down retail rates from their all-time high levels.
Puri asked the anchor if she knew what 'jeb katra' means and said it means a pickpocket.
The minister said he was willing to discuss the 'scams' associated with the UPA-era -- from 2G scam to CWC -- and also debate on the progress and development under the Modi government.
Thereafter, he made the comment on record-high capital expenditure being done by the Modi government to boost the economy from the depths pandemic had thrown it in.
"Par jeb katra ko kya pata hogo what capital expenditure is (but how will a pickpocket know what capital expenditure is)," he remarked. "Discourse on serious economic issues has to be responsible."
On opposition charge of family jewels being sold in privatisation such as that of Air India, Puri said there are three types of foolish decisions -- one is "sadharan" or ordinary, the other is "asadharan" or extraordinary and the third is "chakravarti-class' or foolish.
"Air India was a first-rate airline which was a world leader. An airline which was running well was nationalised and ruined," he said alluding to the 1953 decision to nationalise an airline run by the Tata Group.
He went on to refer to the nationalisation of Burmah Shell in 1976 to BPCL. "It was running well, making good profits. It was also nationalised."
"Let us recognise 'chakravarti-class murkh decision' which is what they did to Air India," he said. "And it is the Modi government which reversed it because of political commitment and some deft technical work by those involved in that."
Puri said that he as the then minister for civil aviation did not have the capacity to go to the finance ministry every year with a begging bowl for an Rs 8,000 crore dole to keep the airline running.
"The choice is not between disinvestment or no disinvestment, the choice is between disinvestment and closing Air India down," he added.
Puri said the record excise duty on petrol and diesel helped India navigate through very difficult times during the pandemic as it helped fund government schemes to provide free COVID vaccines, meals and cooking gas to millions.
The government had levied record high excise duty on petrol and diesel during March-May 2020 when international oil prices had plummeted to multi-year lows and the reduced the tax only after relentless daily prices increases took pump rates to all-time highs and the BJP suffered setbacks in assembly by-polls in states like Himachal Pradesh.
He said the government of the day makes a determination of how much taxes are levied.
But this time around, the pandemic made the difference as the economy had never been completely shut down in the past to save lives, he said.
Because of the higher taxes on petrol and diesel, "we were able to meet the extra requirement of the pandemic," he said.
The higher accruals from the tax on petrol and diesel helped meet the cost of providing free vaccines, providing free meals to 90 crore people for one full year and supply free cooking gas LPG refills to 8 crore poor beneficiaries of Ujjwala scheme, he said.
"All this and much more with that Rs 32 a litre excise duty (levied by the central government)," he asserted.
The money collected from taxes also goes into building roads, constructing houses for the poor and other social welfare schemes.
"We were able to navigate through very difficult times," he said.
The government last week cut excise duty on petrol by Rs 5 per litre and that on diesel by Rs 10 to cool retail rates which had touched an all-time high across the country.
More than two-dozen states have cut sales tax or VAT to provide further relief to consumers. The decision to cut excise duty came as petrol and diesel consumption reached pre-COVID levels, giving confidence to the government that its revenues will not be eroded.
"I think we reached the stage where central government had made up its mind long back (to cut excise duty)," Puri said. "We had confidence that we will bring down prices."
The excise duty reduction has been criticised by the opposition as too little too late.
"We had the fiscal confidence that we will be able to do it," he said, adding that removing the excise duty would have been irresponsible.
The excise duty cut announced on Diwali eve was the highest-ever reduction in excise duty. It rolls back a part of the Rs 13 and Rs 16 per litre increase in taxes on petrol and diesel effected between March 2020 and May 2020 to avoid passing on to consumers the sharp fall in international oil prices.
That hike in excise duty had taken central taxes on petrol to their highest level of Rs 32.9 per litre and that on diesel to Rs 31.8 a litre.
The total increase in petrol price since the May 5, 2020 decision of the government to raise excise duty to record levels had totalled Rs 38.78 per litre. Diesel rates have during this period gone up by Rs 29.03 per litre.