A provincial minister in India’s most populous state has sparked a scandal after suggesting to bureaucrats that they could “steal a little” if they performed well in their duties.

Shivpal Singh Yadav, in charge of housing and construction in northern Uttar Pradesh state, on Friday hastily withdrew the offer he made a day earlier during a meeting with government employees, which was also attended by journalists.

Yadav is an uncle to the state chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, whose Samajwadi Party stormed into power on an anti-corruption platform in elections held in Uttar Pradesh in March.

“If you work hard, you can steal a little, but don’t behave like bandits,” Yadav said at the meeting in Etah town, about 124 miles from capital Lucknow.

The comments drew flak from political opponents, prompting Yadav to retract his offer and accuse journalists of sneaking into the gathering.

“I have taken back those words,” he told reporters in Lucknow on Friday.

“Why are you raking it up? I don’t know why the media is targeting me,” he said.

The opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) condemned the minister’s invitation to officials to steal.

“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 said.

“It is not appropriate for a minister to talk like this,” he said.

Shahid Siddiqui, who was expelled last month from a senior post in the ruling Samajwadi Party, also turned his guns on the minister.

“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,” he added.

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