quiet war­rior

The as­cent of Nir­mala Sithara­man

Governance Now - - FRONT PAGE - Aasha Khosa

Sithara­man and Florence Parly of France are the only women de­fence min­is­ters of N-power states at present.

To­day, Nir­mala Sithara­man, In­dia’s first woman full-time de­fence min­is­ter, may ap­pear a pic­ture of poise and con­fi­dence. But 11 years ago, she wasn’t even sure if she should join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has al­lowed her po­lit­i­cal ca­reer – and, of course, her abil­i­ties – to flower. in fact, she had hardly as­pired to a ca­reer in pol­i­tics. speak­ing to this writer, Nir­mala had once re­called that, in 2006, she had re­ceived a let­ter from se­nior BJP leader sushma swaraj, for whom she al­ways had a lot of ad­mi­ra­tion. swaraj had in­vited the Jnu-ed­u­cated sithara­man to join the BJP’S cam­paign to train vil­lage women for mak­ing po­lit­i­cal in­ter­ven­tions and tak­ing up po­lit­i­cal roles. Back then, like all other po­lit­i­cal par­ties, the BJP had just a few fe­male faces in par­lia­ment. The de­bate of giv­ing 33 per­cent reser­va­tions to women in par­lia­ment and leg­is­la­tures was gain­ing mo­men­tum; con­sen­sus had eluded the lead­ers, as some par­ties op­posed it and the idea seemed headed nowhere. one of the for­mu­lae the women’s rights groups of­fered for not keep­ing leg­is­la­tures and par­lia­ment as largely all-male pre­serves was that each party should have women can­di­dates in one-third of the seats it was con­test­ing. good in­ten­tions, but the par­ties found there weren’t many women with sup­port bases that would make them win­ning can­di­dates. The BJP had ap­pointed swaraj to deal with this, re­al­is­ing that our so­cial sys­tems had left women bereft of any urge to par­tic­i­pate in pol­i­tics and be­come lead­ers. she drew up a long-term plan to end this: the party would hold vil­lage-level train­ing camps for women to get them ready for po­lit­i­cal roles. This, she thought, was the only way women lead­ers would emerge at the state and na­tional level over a pe­riod of time.

Back then, sithara­man was a mem­ber of the Na­tional com­mis­sion for Women (NCW) and would oc­ca­sion­ally visit Swaraj and of­fer in­sight­ful ideas on women’s em­pow­er­ment. Sithara­man had her first ex­pe­ri­ence of power pol­i­tics when the upa gov­ern­ment, un­der Man­mo­han singh, sum­mar­ily sacked the NCW in or­der to pack it with its own mem­bers. soon, sithara­man left for Hy­der­abad, where she got busy run­ning an al­ter­na­tive school, Pranava, that she and her hus­band Parakala Prab­hakar had founded af­ter re­turn­ing from the uk in 1991.

al­though she was happy to be in­vited to delhi once again, she won­dered if join­ing the BJP would be the right choice. Back in Madu­rai, where she was born in an iyen­gar fam­ily – her fa­ther was a rail­way em­ployee and mother an ar­dent book-lover – ev­ery­one was a congress sup­porter. ditto in her hus­band’s fam­ily: in fact, sithara­man’s moth­erin-law, Parakala Ka­likamba, had been a congress Mla and fa­ther-in-law, se­sha­vatharam, had served as a min­is­ter in suc­ces­sive congress gov­ern­ments in andhra Pradesh. so she showed the let­ter to her mother-in-law and what the ma­tri­arch told her was to change her life. The mother-in­law ad­vised sithara­man to take the in­vi­ta­tion as a god­send to prove her­self and serve the coun­try. More im­por­tantly, she told sithara­man that in the end all par­ties work more or less in the same way.

With that go-ahead, sithara­man didn’t even con­sult her hus­band Prab­hakar, who was, in fact, into pol­i­tics. The two had met at the Jawa­har­lal Nehru univer­sity while he was study­ing eco­nom­ics and she in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions. af­ter mar­riage in 1986, Prab­hakar ob­tained a schol­ar­ship to do his Phd at the lon­don school of eco­nom­ics, while sithara­man, who was do­ing a Phd at JNU (on in­doeu­ro­pean tex­tile trade in the con­text of the GATT) left it un­fin­ished to ac­com­pany him abroad. on re­turn­ing to in­dia, Prab­hakar joined re­gional pol­i­tics; he is now com­mu­ni­ca­tions ad­vi­sor to the

N chan­drababu Naidu gov­ern­ment in andhra Pradesh. sithara­man first worked as an as­sis­tant to economists at the agri­cul­tural en­gi­neers As­so­ci­a­tion, served briefly with the BBC World ser­vice, and was later se­nior man­ager (re­search and anal­y­sis) at Price­wa­ter­house­coop­ers. The cou­ple also used to run a think­tank in Hy­der­abad.

No­body quite knows the fate of the BJP’S plans to mo­bilise women for po­lit­i­cal roles, but once in delhi, sithara­man kept go­ing places in the BJP. as a party spokesper­son, she came across as a so­phis­ti­cated com­mu­ni­ca­tor. in this age of in­for­ma­tion com­ing en­cap­su­lated as sound­bites, her skills helped the party at a time when it was close to gain­ing power. Her ex­po­sure to the west made her use brevity to ef­fec­tively com­mu­ni­cate her party’s po­lit­i­cal po­si­tion.

once she was nom­i­nated to the party’s na­tional ex­ec­u­tive, sithar­man would be the first per­son to reach its ashoka road head­quar­ters each day. she would go through the lead­ing news­pa­pers, jot down key points and plan the day’s brief­ing sched­ule. Sudesh Verma, BJP spokesper­son, re­calls those days. “she came across as a hard­work­ing, highly ar­tic­u­late, and knowl­edge­able per­son and a metic­u­lous plan­ner. and there­fore, she en­deared all.” He says her rise was in­evitable, given the way she would come out with fly­ing colours in me­dia de­bates; her up­right­ness also helped. Be­ing a keen learner, she quickly gelled into the BJP and proved her worth. Party in­sid­ers say she was par­tic­u­lar about writ­ing press hand­outs and per­son­ally fi­nalised each draft. The im­age of a sari-wearing woman speak­ing good english who has a do­mes­tic side to her – there’s a widely cir­cu­lated photo of her learn­ing how to make andhra pick­les from her mother-in­law – made her a per­fect icon fit­ting into the BJP scheme of things. Her po­si­tion also helped the party pro­ject it­self in south in­dia.

sithara­man’s com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills and her spir­ited de­fence of Naren­dra Modi be­fore the me­dia made her al­most in­dis­pens­able for the party’s elec­tion cam­paign. she stayed put in gu­jarat dur­ing the 2014 elec­tion cam­paign. at the end, when Modi picked her as com­merce min­is­ter, not many party in­sid­ers were sur­prised. ear­lier, as one of the BJP spokesper­sons, sithara­man had be­come a house­hold name across in­dia. she was cor­dial and yet firm in her in­ter­ac­tion with me­dia per­sons. a woman jour­nal­ist re­calls how she would en­quire about her new­born child each time they met. later, when the jour­nal­ist de­cided to quit her hec­tic TV job for a rel­a­tively easy aca­demic po­si­tion so that she would get time for her child and spoke of it to the com­merce min­is­ter, she con­grat­u­lated her. “it’s the best de­ci­sion you have taken,” the jour­nal­ist re­called sithara­man telling her while pat­ting her back. sithara­man has a daugh­ter, Parakala Vanga­mayi, who is work­ing with a fi­nan­cial daily in delhi.

sithara­man’s elevation as rak­sha mantri, how­ever, came as a ma­jor suprise, un­like her se­lec­tion to the post of com­merce min­is­ter. indira gandhi has held the post of de­fence min­is­ter, but that was when she was also the prime min­is­ter. sithara­man holds the post full-time,

Eleven years ago, Sithara­man was un­sure about join­ing the BJP, since her in­laws were Congress lead­ers. In the end, it was her mother-in­law, a for­mer MLA, who told her to go ahead.

and in­de­pen­dently. This also puts her in the league of ‘power women’ from across the world. Be­sides Florence Parly of France, she is the only de­fence min­is­ter of a nu­clear power state. The sub-con­ti­nent has a rich crop of women de­fence min­is­ters, the first in the world be­ing sir­i­mavo Ban­daranaike of Cey­lon (in the 1960s). Be­nazir Bhutto of Pak­istan (in the 1980s), and Khaleda Zia and sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh (both in the 1990s) have also held de­fence port­fo­lios.

Sithara­man’s friends ex­ude con­fi­dence about her abil­ity to de­liver in this tough task while many party men, jeal­ous of the rise of an out­sider, won­dered if she would be ef­fec­tive. Many made no pre­tence of hid­ing their chau­vin­is­tic streak and ques­tioned the rise of a woman with no ex­pe­ri­ence of toplevel gov­er­nance be­com­ing de­fence min­is­ter.

in­sid­ers say her pro­mo­tion to the ex­alted rank of a front­line min­is­ter, who would sit in the cab­i­net com­mit­tee on eco­nomic af­fairs (CCEA) and cab­i­net com­mit­tee on se­cu­rity (ccs), is linked to Modi’s as­sess­ment of her work. “The PM is a hard taskmas­ter and he has his own mech­a­nism and pa­ram­e­ters to judge the per­for­mance of min­is­ters,” says a se­nior BJP leader, who feels that sithara­man had de­liv­ered on all points that were ex­pected of her by the PM. “she has taken de­ci­sions quickly and in line with the agenda of gov­er­nance; those who feel she didn’t de­liver as com­merce min­is­ter may have had in­flated ex­pec­ta­tions,” says the leader. Her un­equiv­o­cal and un­flinch­ing sup­port for the prime min­is­ter in pub­lic added to her worth for Modi.

“as a leader, she is one of those rare per­sons whose sense of power doesn’t trans­late into ar­ro­gance; power never got into her head and she al­ways spoke to peo­ple with an open mind,” says an­other BJP leader.

anand Ku­mar, a founder of swaraj ab­hiyan – the break­away fac­tion of the aam aadmi Party (aap), ad­mit­ted that sithara­man’s qual­ity of be­ing open­minded on all is­sues was her big­gest

Cir­cling the de­fence min­istry is a cir­cuit of in­flu­ence ped­dlers. Sithara­man will have to learn fast how to nul­lify their machi­na­tions. The likes of Ge­orge Fer­nan­des and AK Antony have burnt their fin­gers be­fore.

as­set for the new as­sign­ment. sithara­man was a mem­ber of a ‘Free Thinkers’ group anand founded in JNU to counter the left’s dom­i­nance of the cam­pus in the 1970s. They were not con­tem­po­raries and could only meet in 2011, dur­ing the Anna Hazare-led In­dia Against cor­rup­tion move­ment for lok­pal. “she spoke to us on be­half of the BJP and i found her very re­cep­tive to all ideas,” anand says. He also com­mended her open­ness to learn­ing and hear­ing ev­ery­one out pa­tiently.

also, he be­lieves, sithara­man would be a good min­is­ter be­cause of her qual­ity of main­tain­ing a low pro­file and be­ing a keen and quick learner. “she does not rush to the TV stu­dios at the drop of the hat,” he says. But the de­fence min­istry has a dark cham­ber that holds im­mense se­crets and she would have to tread care­fully, he warns. “stal­warts like ge­orge Fer­nan­des and ak antony got scratches on their hands while deal­ing with the mess of the min­istry. But her be­ing a low-pro­file per­son would also mean that ex­pec­ta­tion from her is low and there­fore she would be able to per­form,” he says.

anand cred­its Modi for his out-ofthe-box idea of mak­ing sithara­man the de­fence min­is­ter. “along with sushma swaraj and sm­riti irani, sithara­man’s pres­ence in the cab­i­net means a great em­pow­er­ment to women in the top ech­e­lons of the gov­ern­ment,” he says.

Was Nir­mala sithara­man a suc­cess­ful com­merce min­is­ter? Many of her de­trac­tors point to the fall in trade dur­ing her ten­ure. also, un­der her stew­ard­ship, in­dia was not able to ne­go­ti­ate free trade treaties with the euro­pean union or bring to fruition the re­gional com­pre­hen­sive eco­nomic Part­ner­ship agree­ment (rcep) – a pro­posed free trade treaty be­tween the 10-na­tion asean bloc and six neigh­bour­ing na­tions, namely, in­dia, china, aus­tralia, south Korea, New Zealand and Ja­pan. sithara­man has acted tough in ne­go­ti­a­tions to pro­tect in­dia’s in­ter­ests.

“Her stern coun­te­nance and brusque ora­tory were not help­ful in ne­go­ti­a­tions where one has to re­main flex­i­ble and be in a give-and-take mood,” says a per­son well-versed with what’s hap­pen­ing in the com­merce min­istry. “This, it seems, had given her a rep­u­ta­tion of be­ing a tough ne­go­tia­tor. Maybe, this was the stand she was asked to take, even though the prime min­is­ter would visit coun­tries of­fer­ing free trade treaties to world lead­ers.” if that’s the case, she may have been made a scape­goat. But her elevation speaks oth­er­wise of the es­teem in which she is held in the party and by the prime min­is­ter.

Cour­tesy: twit­ter / in­dian air Force med­ica co­or­di­na­tion cen­tre

Nir­mala Sithara­man ac­quaint­ing her­self with the MIG-21 Bi­son air­craft at AFS Ut­tar­lai in Ra­jasthan

A photo of Sithara­man learn­ing to make avakkai pick­les from her moth­erin-law, a for­mer MLA, had gone vi­ral in so­cial me­dia.

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