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India minister defends colleague against graft claims

NEW DELHI -- A senior Indian politician has dismissed claims that a colleague embezzled US$134,000, saying the sum was too small to be taken seriously.

Steel Minister Beni Prasad Verma spoke out in defense of Salman Khurshid, the law minister who has been accused of siphoning off government money allotted to a trust that he heads to help disabled people.

“I believe Salman Khurshid could not have embezzled 71 lakh (7.1 million rupees). It is a very small amount for a central minister,” Verma was quoted as saying by the Times of India newspaper on Tuesday.

“I would have taken it seriously if the amount was 71 crore (710 million),” he added.

A lakh is 100,000 rupees, while a crore is 10 million rupees.

The Times of India ran an editorial criticizing Verma's statement as “grossly ill-timed and ill-phrased.”

“The comments reflect the rather blase attitude that the political class has developed towards corruption,” it added.

Verma later tried to withdraw his remarks, saying that corruption on any scale was wrong.

Graft has been one of the biggest political issues in India over the last two years, with a string of scandals hitting the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and sparking popular protest movements.

Activist Anna Hazare, who models himself on independence hero Mahatma Gandhi, last year led hundreds of thousands in street demonstrations against endemic bribe-taking and corruption.

Khurshid has denied all the allegations against him.

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