A JNU free thinker in the Defence Ministry: Looking back at Nirmala Sitharaman’s career

A JNU free thinker in the Defence Ministry: Looking back at Nirmala Sitharaman’s career

A Tamilian in the Bharatiya Janata Party. A non-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh politician whose formative institution is, instead, the Jawaharlal Nehru University. A trained economist and former employee of PriceWaterhouseCooper. There are many things about Nirmala Sitharaman that mark her out as being quite unlike most other members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Cabinet. This week, she will add another feather to that cap: First woman to independently run the Defence Ministry.

Sitharaman appointment on Sunday came as a surprise. This wasn’t only because she had been promoted to one of the top ministries, but also because the storyline just days earlier had suggested that she might be dropped from he government altogether. On Thursday, when the headlines blared out the message that Sitharaman had been asked to resign as Minister of State for Commerce, there were murmurs that she might be asked to return to party work.

Instead, she was pole-vaulted all the way to the top of the Cabinet, being given charge of one of the top-four Raisina Hill ministries. Alongside Modi, Home Minister Rajnath Singh, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, Sitharaman will now be a member of the Cabinet Committee on Security, one of the country’s top decision-making bodies.

Cosmic grace

“Somebody who has come from a small town, grown into the party with all the support of the leadership, and if given such responsibility, it just makes you feel sometimes that cosmic grace is there,” Sitharaman told the media after being sworn into the Cabinet. “Otherwise it is impossible.”

Her story does indeed begin in small-town Tamil Nadu, hardly the breeding ground for top BJP leadership. Her father, a Tamil Iyengar, worked in the Railways, which meant moving around the state when she was very young before settling down in Trichy to finish her schooling. She went on to do her Bachelor’s in Economics at the Seethalakshmi Ramaswami college in the town, before getting into the economics programme at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Sitharaman did her masters and MPhil – focusing on Indo-Europe trade – in the famously left-leaning university in the capital, where she was also a member of the Free Thinkers, a forum that discussed politics of both the right and the left. It was here that Sitharaman met Parakala Prabhakar, from Andhra Pradesh, whose father was a five-time minister in the state from the Congress. Sitharaman and Prabhakar married soon after, and moved to London, where for a brief time she worked as a shop assistant at a home decor retail store.

Soon after, Sitharaman’s economist background was put to use as she worked on researching Eastern European economies for the PriceWaterhouseCooper consultancy firm. She even spent some time working for the BBC’s World Service, before the couple moved back to India to raise their child in 1991.

Return home

While Prabhakar was attempting to play a role in Congress politics in Andhra Pradesh, the couple also set up a school in Hyderabad called Pranava. By the time of the first National Democratic Alliance government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Sitharaman was appointed as an apolitical member of the National Commission for Women.

After the Congress returned to power, Sitharaman was removed from the commission, and moved back to set up a policy think tank in Hyderabad as well as a school for the underprivileged. Her work with the school brought her into regular contact with Sushma Swaraj, who had been the first woman to become a national spokersperson for the BJP in the 1990s, and was then heading a parliamentary panel on women and child development. Sitharaman also got involved with the RSS-affiliated Swadeshi Jagran Manch.

In 2006, at the urging of Swaraj and others, Sitharaman joined the BJP. Four years later, Sitharaman became the second woman to be a national spokesperson for the party, following in Swaraj’s footsteps. She became quite popular in the party, particularly in Gujarat, for her articulate defence of BJP positions. When Modi swept to power in 2014, she was a shoo-in for a ministerial post, even though she wasn’t a Member of Parliament. She was given a junior minister role in the Commerce ministry under Finance Minister Arun Jaitley.

Commerce & defence

Her time in the ministry has not been the most successful, although that might have more to do with Jaitley’s stewardship of the economy. During Sitharaman’s tenure, industry had to deal with major problems that it had inherited over the years. There was little in the way of improved exports, not much to show from the much-touted Make in India programme and minimal progress on multilateral trade deals. Despite not much to show of it, her time in the ministry is generally believed to have been efficient, with the only bad note coming after Sitharaman raised eyebrows by calling on the independent Reserve Bank of India to cut its interest rates by 2% to benefit industry.

Meanwhile, the BJP has leaned more heavily on Sitharaman to take up matters in the South, particularly in Tamil Nadu, even though she does not have a base in the state. With veteran Venkaiah Naidu now unable to be involved in political matters, having been elected Vice President, the BJP is expected to rely on Sitharaman to coordinate with its unit and other parties in Tamil Nadu, a state where it is hoping to expand. The added stature of being defence minister will certainly help here.

Sitharaman will face many challenges in the defence ministry. With elections due in 2019, she has barely a year and a half to make her mark in a ministry where policies take years to fall into place. Several important defence deals are currently being negotiated and Sitharaman will also have to salvage the military segment of the mostly unsuccessful Make in India policy. The recently concluded One Rank One Pension agitation also saw an unprecedented level of political activity from veterans and the forces, something that Sitharaman will have to engage with. Above all though, Sitharaman will have to contend with the fact that much of the policy direction will come straight from the Prime Minister’s Office as well as the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, leaving her to implement their goals.