Nirmala Sitharaman’s elevation to the post of defence minister speaks loud as guns of the trust the party and the PM have in her. Also of a sterling track record as party spokesperson and commerce minister
Aasha Khosa | September 18, 2017 | New Delhi
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.
Nirmala Sitharaman acquainting herself with the MiG-21 Bison aircraft at AFS Uttarlai in Rajasthan. (Photo: Twitter/Indian Air Force Media Cordination Centre)
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 mother-in-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-in-law 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 Indo-European 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 think-tank 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.
A photo of Sitharaman learning to make avakkai pickles from her mother-in-law, a former MLA, had gone viral in social media
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-in-law – 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, 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 top-level 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 open-minded on all issues was her biggest 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-of-the-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.
(The article appears in the September 30, 2017 issue)
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