Can Nirmala Sitharaman Be a Game-Changer for Defence Ministry?
Sitharaman’s elevation as defence minister has been the surprise story of the much-discussed cabinet reshuffle.
Sitharaman’s elevation as defence minister has been the surprise story of the much-discussed cabinet reshuffle.(Photo: Rahul Gupta/The Quint)

Can Nirmala Sitharaman Be a Game-Changer for Defence Ministry?

Four summers ago, Dr Parakala Prabhakar (now Communications Adviser to the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh) had posted on his Facebook page, photographs of his wife along with relatives, engaged in the preparation of avvakai (mango pickle) at their home in Hyderabad. Aficionados of the Andhra variety of mango pickle would tell you that it is one of the most spiciest varieties you would find anywhere in India.

On a lighter note, there cannot be better training for India's new Defence minister, Nirmala Sitharaman than knowing the recipe to pack a punch with red hot Guntur chillies.

Sitharaman's elevation as defence minister – an unexpected appointment – has been the surprise story of the much-discussed cabinet reshuffle. During her term as Minister of State for Commerce – where she led the trade negotiations at the WTO – she didn’t receive much appreciation, but little did anyone anticipate that she would zoom into Raksha Bhavan on a Brahmos missile.

But Sitharaman's appointment as the first full-time woman Defence minister isn't just about reward for a job well done in the Commerce ministry. It is also about important political messaging.

The Pan-South Indian Appeal

For a party struggling to find talent from south India, Nirmala is as pan-south Indian as one can get. Born and educated in Tamil Nadu, she settled down in Hyderabad with her husband who hails from Andhra Pradesh. To add to it, she now represents Karnataka in the Rajya Sabha.

In the past few months, there has been chatter about Nirmala being used as an interlocutor on behalf of the BJP with the AIADMK's divided leadership. While the extent of the engagement remains unknown, her Chennai trips had led to speculation that she could be projected as the face of the BJP in Tamil Nadu.

However, within party circles, Sitharaman is not seen as someone who has cut her teeth in grassroots party work. She rose up the ranks more due to her ability to effectively articulate the party position as spokesperson.

Moreover, in the caste-obsessed political theatre of Tamil Nadu where the Thevar and Gounder BC communities are powerful and the political narrative has been vociferously anti-Brahminical, a Brahmin face would have limited political appeal.

After Venkaiah Naidu It’s Nirmala’s Game

Two, Sitharaman's inability to keep her promise that Tamil Nadu would be exempted from NEET this year dented her image. More so, after 17-year-old Anitha committed suicide this week for not being able to get a medical college seat, despite scoring high marks in class 12. The Centre did a U-turn in the Supreme court, going against the BJP's word to the students of Tamil Nadu.

But in a scenario where Venkaiah Naidu has exited, Nirmala Sitharaman is the second best choice for the BJP. Articulate in Tamil, Telugu, English and Hindi and learning Kannada (she also knows German), the BJP would like the people of south India to view Nirmala in her more high-profile avatar as part of the party's outreach beyond the Vindhyas.

The BJP has many more MPs from Karnataka but the Ananth Kumars and the Sadananda Gowdas are primarily seen as Kannadiga leaders.

Will She get a Free Rein Over the Ministry?

Viewed from the gender prism, the Prime Minister comes out looking good with the unconventional decision to appoint Sitharaman in a role that has always been seen as a “masculine job”. Coming from a political platform whose thinking is influenced by the male-dominated RSS, it shows the PM's will to break the existing glass ceiling.

But would the new Raksha Mantri get a free hand in running the ministry?

The jury stands divided over this.

Sources in the BJP point to former Defence minister Manohar Parrikar's decision to quit and return to Goa and say it was because most of the files would get stuck with the finance ministry. Things moved faster when Finance minister Arun Jaitley, holding temporary charge of Defence, wore both hats.

Another apprehension is that the ministry will be remote controlled by the PMO, reducing the minister to a titular head.

However, having worked as MoS Finance briefly and reported to Jaitley, the feeling is that Sitharaman will be able to manoeuvre the hurdles in the Defence-Finance-PMO interface better.

A Clean Image

At a personal level, it is also a certificate for Nirmala Sitharaman's probity because the defence ministry with arms dealers swarming around has for decades been seen a den of big ticket corruption. Parrikar was chosen for the job because of his clean image and the fact that Jaitley was asked to hold charge for so long was because the PM had to be sure of the credentials of the person he would finally hand over the ministry to.

Nirmala Sitharaman brings to the table impeccable academic credentials. She did her research on textile trade, a background that helped her during her stint as Commerce minister. She has worked at PriceWaterhouseCoopers and with the BBC. She has a reputation of being a stickler for rules.

She is also a JNU alumni, having secured her MA from the University in 1980. In July, the JNU Vice-Chancellor M Jagadesh Kumar asked the government to install a battle tank on campus to remind the students of the valour of the armed forces. The PM has done it better, by giving the entire set of tanks, missiles and ships to a product of the campus.

(The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached at @Iamtssudhir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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