JNU, PricewaterhouseCoopers, think tanks and even a short stint with BBC in London, Nirmala Sitharaman has travelled the long and winding road to become India’s first full-time woman defence minister.
The former commerce minister, 58, who took charge of her new assignment on Thursday, has been the cynosure of much attention since Prime Minister Narendra Modi rejigged his council of ministers on Sunday. The ex-PricewaterhouseCoopers executive from Jawaharlal Nehru University will have to deal with critical challenges in the defence ministry, including enhancing combat prowess of the armed forces to deal with an aggressive China along the northen border and Pakistan’s continuous proxy war, say defence watchers.
As commerce minister, Sitharaman was involved in trade negotiations with several countries to lift barriers for free flow of trade. Now she will now have to shift her attention to protecting the country’s borders, said defence expert V K Chaturvedi. He said Sitharaman will have to take steps to keep the morale of the armed forces high and ensure speedy military modernisation so that the country can effectively deal with various challenges. “It is a very good move. She comes with fresh ideas and I am confident she will justify her appointment to the post,” Chaturvedi, who is involved with the defence think-tank IDSA, added.
Defence experts also feel that the frequency of incidents of incursions by the Chinese Army may go up in the coming months and years after the Dokalam face-off, and Sitharaman may face a challenge in handling such complex issues. The government has been focusing on domestic defence production and Sitharaman will have to carry forward a number of big-ticket reform initiatives, including implementing the ambitious “strategic partnership” model with several countries like the United States and Russia.
Sitharaman has now become part of the crucial Cabinet Committee on Security — the members include the prime minister, home minister, external affairs minister and the finance minister. The Rajya Sabha member is only the second woman to take charge of the crucial defence ministry. Indira Gandhi, as prime minister, had also held the portfolio but Sitharaman is the first full-time woman minister.
Sitharaman was born on August 18, 1959 in the temple town of Madurai, Tamil Nadu. She did her graduation in economics from Seethalakshmi Ramaswamy College in Tiruchirapalli. She did her masters in economics from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The focus of her draft PH.D thesis was Indo-European textile trade.
Sitharaman did a stint with the Agricultural Engineers Association in London and also worked as senior manager (Research and Analysis) with PriceWaterhouseCoopers in the city. During this time she also briefly worked with BBC World Service.
On her return to India, she served as deputy director of the Centre for Public Policy Studies at Hyderabad. She was also a member of the National Commission for Women from 2003-2005. Politics beckoned soon after and she joined the BJP in 2008. In 2010, she was made party’s national spokesperson in Delhi and became a familiar figure articulating the BJP’s position on various issues.
Sitharaman was inducted into the council of ministers on 26 May 2014 as Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Commerce and Industry.