At the Helm
NIRMALA SITHARAMAN, 58
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