Over the last three governments, one helmed by the NDA followed by two under the UPA, women ministers were confined to ministries that symbolised “soft power” — Social Justice, Information & Broadcasting, Women and Child Development, Health, Tourism and Culture, etc. With Sunday’s Cabinet reshuffle, there are now two women on the coveted Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), which forms the core of the government and is headed by the Prime Minister.
After Indira Gandhi, as prime minister, held occasional charge of ministries under the CCS, it took another 30 years before Sushma Swaraj took charge as External Affairs Minister in 2014 and became a part of the committee. On Sunday, Nirmala Sitharaman became the Defence Minister to join Swaraj, Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on the CCS, apart from the PM.
The last three governments did not have more than 10 women ministers on the Council at any one time. Prominent among those in that select group were Swaraj, who was in charge of Information and Broadcasting, and Health, and Mamata Banerjee as Railways Minister in NDA-I.
On Sunday, Sitharaman’s promotion came in for praise from women leaders across party lines — with some words of caution.
“I welcome it. I am sure she will do justice to this,” said former minister and Congress Rajya Sabha MP Kumari Selja. “But it should not end at this. We know the way things are in the country, especially in BJP-ruled states. On the ground, there is nothing like ‘beti bachao (save the girl child)’, there is only sloganeering. But I welcome her elevation as Defence Minister,” Selja said.
CPI(M) leader Brinda Karat described Sitharaman’s promotion as a “happy occasion”. “I am glad that we have a woman Defence Minister. I would not say that it is a question of gender empowerment. But certainly, it is a happy occasion,” said Karat, CPI(M) Politburo member and former Rajya Sabha MP.
“It is good that they have women in the CCS. It is certainly a positive message. But if it is not to remain as just tokenism, it is important for the Prime Minister to take the next logical step of passing the reservation Bill for women. That is critical. Why is he hesitant to take that step? There is absolutely no reason for them to not have the Bill,” she said.
Another Congress MP, Sushmita Dev, described the presence of two women on the CCS as “great optics”. “I think it is great optics. There is a message there. She has been appointed as Defence Minister. But there is also Sushma Swaraj, the External Affairs Minister. They should not just become symbols of women empowerment. They should be allowed to function with freedom,” said Dev.
“Swaraj is doing a great job. She is experienced and has huge potential, but they have not allowed her to bloom. Sitharaman should be given an opportunity to actually act as a Defence Minister, to prove to the world that she has a mind of her own,” she said.
However, a senior minister told The Indian Express that gender was not the sole criterion that went in favour of Sitharaman. “The first thing was that Arun Jaitley was keen to relinquish the Defence portfolio. With very few alternatives available among senior leaders, Sitharaman fitted the bill. She is serious, uses measured language, has a staunch nationalistic streak and has so far behaved in a way that no accusing finger has been pointed towards her,” the minister said.
Another minister said that the other seniors in the Cabinet — Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Ananth Kumar and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad — were crucial to their portfolios and could not have been replaced.
Party sources said that Health Minister J P Nadda could not be considered either, since the party is yet to decide on whether he should be sent to poll-bound Himachal Pradesh.
Besides, sources said, after M Venkaiah Naidu’s exit from the Cabinet, Sitharaman’s entry and induction in the CCS would fit the BJP’s gameplan of deepening its presence in the south. Born in Tamil Nadu, Sitharaman has spent a part of her life in Andhra Pradesh and represents Karnataka in the Rajya Sabha.