View from India: Nirmala Sitharaman, India’s full-time female defence minister

Nirmala Sitharaman is now India’s first full-time defence minister. No doubt our former Prime Minister (PM) Indira Gandhi took charge of the defence ministry even as PM. She took charge first in 1975 and later from 1980-82, but Sitharaman is the first full-time woman occupant of the South Block perch.

Agreeably, nine is a mystic number and it’s also a symbol of wisdom and good leadership. The number nine comes to mind because nine new ministers have been officially inducted into the cabinet.

The swearing-in ceremony was held on Sunday, September 3 at Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi. This is the third reshuffle of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s union cabinet. It’s a reshuffle-cum-expansion of the ministry. And if this is any indication, well, a new team is a preparation for the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections.

The announcement of Sitharaman being appointed as defence minister could probably be the most significant part of the cabinet rejig. The fact that we now have a full-time defence minister itself is something to rejoice.

Sitharaman, in the capacity of a defence minister, joins the league of the all-powerful Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) and has surpassed many senior party colleagues in the cabinet. She has broken the proverbial glass ceiling, as she takes over the defence ministry, which is largely male-dominated. Now, one hopes to see more women joining the defence force.

Sitharaman, who was the former commerce minister, thanked “cosmic grace” for getting the defence portfolio. Madurai-born Sitharaman has a masters degree in economics from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Coming to her professional stint, she has worked for PwC, London and with BBC World Service. Sitharaman joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2008. She was made a member of the national executive. Later in 2010, she was nominated as party spokesperson.

Looking back, Arun Jaitley had managed the defence portfolio along with finance after former defence minister Manohar Parrikar returned to his home state of Goa. In fact, Arun Jaitley has left for Japan on Sunday night. Though the new defence minister should have gone, it didn’t seem to work out at the last minute.

Let’s try to visualise what it means to have a full-time defence minister. The most obvious outcome points to strategic global partnerships. It is also hoped that defence reforms would be scaled up. While Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd is a prominent player in the Indian defence industry, partnerships are expected to open out new avenues of growth, revenue and job creation. Companies like Larsen and Toubro Ltd, Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd, Reliance Infrastructure Ltd, Tata Group and Adani Group are likely to gain from strategic partnerships.

Another significant woman portfolio is that of the minister for external affairs, helmed by Sushma Swaraj. She continues to retain her portfolio in the current revamp. The minister has successfully handled emergencies in several instances, including humanitarian situations. She, too, is part of the prestigious CCS.

One more minister who caught my attention is Piyush Goyal, who has taken over as the 39th railway minister of India and has also been elevated to cabinet ranking. As former minister of state with independent charge for power, coal, new and renewable energy, Goyal stands out for electrifying thousands of villages. Reportedly, the number of villages that are not electrified are said to have reduced from 18,000 to 4,000.

The new faces sworn-in by President Ram Nath Kovind are Ashwini Kumar Choubey, Shiv Paratap Shukla, Virendra Kumar, Anantkumar Hegde, Raj Kumar Singh, Hardeep Singh Puri, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, Satya Pal Singh, and Alphons Kannanthanam. Apart from these, four ministers of state have been promoted to the cabinet rank. They include Piyush Goyal, Nirmala Sitharaman, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi and Dharmendra Pradhan.

Although nine ministers have been freshly appointed to the cabinet, I have focused on what seemed the most significant move in this direction.

PM Modi congratulates those who took oath today. “Their experience and wisdom will add immense value to the council of ministers,” he tweeted.

One hopes to see more women occupying important ranks in the cabinet in the coming years.

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