Shivpal Yadav, the public works minister in the impoverished state of Uttar Pradesh, told officials during a speech: "As long as you work hard and get things done, you can steal a little. But this should not translate into robbery.”
The statements, which were broadcast on television, come at a time when the public’s anger over corruption by government officials is at an all-time high, as exemplified by the crusade of activist Anna Hazare to rid the nation of graft.
Yadav subsequently backtracked from his earlier remarks and insisted that he opposes corruption. He also blamed the media for showing an edited version of his speech.
"Only an edited clip of my comments at the meeting is being shown on the news channels,” he complained to reporters.
“I was actually discussing ways to check corruption at a meeting with district officials. I am resolutely against corruption.”
Shivpal Yadav is a member of the Samajwadi Party, which swept into power in Uttar Pradesh in March with a pledge to stamp out corruption. His nephew, Akhilesh Yadav, is the state’s chief minister; while his brother Mulayam Singh Yadav is the Samajwadi Party's president.
The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) condemned Shivpal Yadav's comments.
"A minister's statement is like a policy of the government and if he says so then the government is offering a license to steal the public money," local BJP leader Lalji Tandon stated.
"It is not appropriate for a minister to talk like this.”
BJP spokesman Rajiv Pratap told Indian media: “It is bizarre and reckless statement. He has suggested to officials that you can steal but not loot.”
Another lawmaker, Shahid Siddiqui, who was recently expelled from the Samajwadi Party, also blasted Shivpal Yadav.
"It is very unfortunate that a minister who is the uncle of the chief minister and who does not consider himself anything less than a chief minister talks in such a way," Siddiqui said.
"Now you are giving officers a free hand to steal.”
Corruption is widespread in India and has reportedly cost the country billions of dollars and threatens foreign investment.
According to Transparency International, India scores a 3.1 on its “corruption index” for 2011, putting the country somewhere in the middle of all the world’s nations.