In a League of Her Own
Nirmala Siharaman, India’s first full-time woman Defence Minister, has been in the limelight winning many a battle in the national political arena as she staunchly defends the landmark Rafale deal and spearheads the campaign for a resurgent India
Nirmala Sitharaman shares her limelight among a distinct galaxy of Asian women political luminaries, including Indira Gandhi, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Chandrika Kumaratunga, Benazir Bhutto, Khaleda Zia, Sheikh Hasina, Gloria Macapagai-Arroyo, Yuriko Koike, Tomomi Inada, Yingluck Shinawatra, Mariya Ahmed Didi, Regina Ip, and Bindhya Devi Bhandari – all of them taking over the ultimate male bastion, the Defence Minister portfolio, in their respective countries. In India, Indira Gandhi, the third Prime Minister of the country, commanded the Defence Ministry for two short terms. Nirmala Sitharaman is India’s second woman Defence Minister, the first one to be full time in charge of the top ministry.
A suave, dignified but stern articulator and unflinching in facing the fury and flurry of media onslaughts Nirmala Sitharaman rose to political prominence swiftly as the national spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from being a member of its national executive, and winning hearts beyond political affinities as a member of the National Commission for Women (NCW). Hailing from Tamil Nadu, she represented the states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka in Rajya Sabha, the upper house of Indian Parliament. As the Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Ministry of Commerce & Industry, and MOS for Finance and Corporate Affairs, she made her mark in the Narendra Modi cabinet, which had six women ministers. Her elevation to full Cabinet status and to the most challenging post of the country’s Union Defence Minister in a crucial reshuffle, though totally unexpected was not surprising to political observers who had discerned her unique charisma, strong will and persuasive power.
Born in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, Nirmala Sitharaman graduated from Seethalakshmi Ramaswami College, Tiruchirapalli. Her father, Narayanan Sitaraman, worked in the Railways while her mother, K. Savitri, was a homemaker. Pursing her favourite subject, globalisation and its impact on developing countries, she got her Masters in Economics and M. Phil in International Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, where she pursued her PhD dissertation on Indo-European textile trade. She married Dr. Parakala Prabhakar, an alumnus of Jawaharlal Nehru University and London School of Economics, in 1986 and the couple moved to London, the United Kingdom. She had a stint at the PricewaterhouseCoopers, a multinational professional services network headquartered in London, as a senior manager, and later on worked for BBC World Service. They came back to India in 1991 and moved to Narsapuram in the coastal Andhra Pradesh. She is also one of the founding directors of Pranava School in Hyderabad.
Nirmala Sitharaman was appointed a member of the National Commission for Women (NCW) in 2003, during the tenure of Atal Bihari Vajpayee as Prime Minister. She came in touch with senior BJP leader Sushma Swaraj while serving in the NCW. Impressed with her dignified personality and outspoken views, Sushama Swaraj recommended Sitharaman to the party. Even though her husband and his family had a Congress tradition – his mother was a Congress MLA – Sitharaman joined the BJP in 2006, while her husband joined the Prajarajyam Party floated by film star Chiranjeevi in 2007. In 2010, during the tenure of Nitin Gadkari as the BJP party president she was appointed as one of the six spokespersons of the party. She became a popular face not only in Delhi but also in the party headquarters in Gujarat. She played a major role during the Lok Sabha elections of 2014, projecting Narendra Modi as the future prime minister of India.
After the historic win of the BJP in Parliament Elections on May 26, 2014, Nirmala Sitharaman was appointed as the Minister of State (independent charge) for Commerce and Industry as well as MOS for Finance and Corporate Affairs. In June 2014, when a Rajya Sabha seat from Andhra Pradesh was left vacant after the death of Nedurumalli Janardhan Reddy, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), then a major alliance partner of the BJP, offered it to Sitharaman. She is currently the Rajya Sabha MP representing Karnataka.
Under Sitharaman’s tenure at the Ministry for Commerce and Industry and Finance and Corporate Affairs, India's merchandise exports started off well, reaching $310 billion back in 2014-15. Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP), the nodal body responsible for drawing the framework of Foreign direct investment (FDI) policy in the country, managed to ease more than 87 FDI rules across 21 sectors to accelerate economic growth, attracting foreign capital for investments and boosting jobs. The successful marketing of Make In India by the DIPP globally resulted in FDI inflows rising 23 per cent to $55.6 billion in 2015-16, creating a new record. India was meanwhile negotiating at least 16 free trade agreements (FTAs) with nations or nation groupings, including the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership with Asean nations and China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) on matters of international trade rules. As for the ease of doing business in the country, Sitharaman stressed that business norms and license requirements had to be cut down drastically in the process of cementing the business friendly image while targeting to break into the group of top 50 nations in World Bank's Ease of Doing Business global rankings.
She took over the Ministry of Defence on September 3, 2017. In the backdrop of the face-off with China at Doklam plateau and other challenges from across the borders, she was quick to take the reins and make an impact on the geopolitical situation. As one of the most eloquent troubleshooters and stalwart campaign builders of the federal government, Nirmala Sitharaman has been in the forefront defending Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s landmark economic reforms, bold strategic decisions and visionary defence procurement initiatives. With Nirmala Sitharaman at the helms, the Ministry of Defence is making history on many fronts, taking huge strides in modernization of the defence forces and in nation building.