At the Helm

NIR­MALA SITHARA­MAN, 58

India Today - - OTHER NEWS MAKER - —San­deep Un­nithan

The coun­try’s first full-time woman de­fence min­is­ter may be a late en­trant in pol­i­tics, but has ably stepped up to all chal­lenges

Few politi­cians have seen as as­tound­ing a rise to na­tional promi­nence as de­fence min­is­ter Nir­mala Sithara­man. A late en­trant to pol­i­tics, she joined the BJP a mere decade ago, be­com­ing the party spokesper­son in 2010, a ju­nior fi­nance min­is­ter in the Naren­dra Modi gov­ern­ment in 2014 and a com­merce min­is­ter with in­de­pen­dent charge in 2016. A Septem­ber 3 cabi­net reshuf­fle vaulted her over the heads of can­di­dates with decades of po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence into the sad­dle as In­dia’s first full-time woman de­fence min­is­ter—the post was held as ad­di­tional charge by for­mer prime min­is­ter Indira Gandhi.

Glob­ally, it could be ar­gued, her ap­point­ment might not be a big deal—there are 16 coun­tries with women de­fence min­is­ters. But most of them are in Europe with set­tled bor­ders, min­i­mal pos­si­bil­ity of con­flict and shrink­ing de­fence bud­gets, lead­ing those mil­i­taries to ques­tion their rel­e­vance. In In­dia, how­ever, the armed forces are needed to watch over 4,700 km of un­set­tled bound­aries where four wars have been fought.

The armed forces are also in­stru­ments of in­ter­nal

se­cu­rity in sen­si­tive states such as Jammu and Kash­mir and pos­sess the only or­gan­ised ma­chin­ery ca­pa­ble of re­spond­ing to cat­a­clysmic nat­u­ral dis­as­ters. Fix­ing an equip­ment-de­fi­cient armed forces, hope­lessly de­pen­dent on im­ports, a strug­gling in­dige­nous arms in­dus­try along with a no­to­ri­ously opaque bu­reau­cracy are other great chal­lenges. In short, there is no time for rest.

In the three months that she has been de­fence min­is­ter, Nir­mala Sithara­man has criss-crossed the coun­try­side, learn­ing on the move—launch­ing a nu­clear sub­ma­rine in Visakha­p­at­nam, teach­ing na­maste to Chi­nese sol­diers in the Hi­malayas, com­fort­ing fish­er­folk who lost their kin to Cy­clone Ockhi in Ker­ala, be­sides crack­ing the whip on the no­to­ri­ously lethar­gic babu­dom in the South Block.

Her big­gest po­lit­i­cal chal­lenge is to re­vive her gov­ern­ment’s com­mit­ment to de­fence in­di­geni­sa­tion un­der the Make in In­dia pol­icy. Hers should be the most in­ter­est­ing min­istry to watch as the Naren­dra Modi gov­ern­ment heads into the fi­nal year of its term.

IN CHARGE Sithara­man ad­dresses the in­au­gu­ral ses­sion of the Air Force Com­man­ders’ Con­fer­ence in New Delhi in Oc­to­ber

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