We have a female finance minister in India after almost half a century — Indira Gandhi was the first. Nirmala Sitharaman is India’s first female full-time Finance Minister. She has also been India’s first female full-time Defence Minister. But Sitharaman’s temper is becoming the central theme of all her public interactions. It’s a problem for the BJP and the Narendra Modi government, especially during a global pandemic. Even Home Minister Amit Shah has quietened down.
Optics require politicians to be at their compassionate best to alleviate fears and anxieties. Sitharaman’s media briefings, however, remain somewhat cold, unless she is taking the occasional dig at Congress leader Rahul Gandhi.
Nirmala Sitharaman has the degrees for her job — a Masters from the Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for Economic Studies and Planning followed by an MPhil. She enrolled for a PhD in Economics with a focus on Indo-Europe trade, which was stalled because she had to move to London with her husband. She then went on to work for PricewaterhouseCoopers as a Senior Manager (R&D) in the UK. Forbes Magazine ranked her at 34 among the 100 most powerful women in the world in 2019. But every time she speaks publicly, Sitharaman’s temper is the topic of discussion.
Typical? Yes. That’s how women are always seen. A male politician is assertive and strong if he is angry — for instance, Arvind Kejriwal. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) convener’s long rants against Modi and co., and before that against ‘corrupt’ Congress, were often seen with much amusement. His huffing-puffing in early days, right after Anna Hazare’s India Against Corruption campaign, made him the country’s sweetheart overnight. His temper sent out a clear message — he had the guts to take on the most powerful people in India.
But a woman politician with a temper is either ‘hysterical’ or doing ‘drama’— in other words, too ‘emotional’ to lead the country. Haven’t we heard this about Mamata Banerjee? In fact, members of the BJP, the party which Sitharaman belongs to, continuously poke fun at the West Bengal chief minister. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in 2014, made fun of Banerjee’s temper by saying, “These days, didi gets angry very frequently. Didi, so much anger is not good. You may fall sick.”
No Arun Jaitley
Nirmala Sitharaman’s credentials are important because women are invariably labelled as incompetent simply because they are women. This, coupled with anger, is the perfect recipe to put down a woman as unfit for leadership roles. It is no surprise that Sitharaman is often dubbed as ‘tai’ or an elderly aunt. Women are passed off as dumb if they make a single mistake — but years after demonetisation delimitated the economy, we still say give Modi a chance.
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Sitharaman, though, has let her temper come in the way of her work. One of the best ways to determine this is to juxtapose her tenure as finance minister with that of Arun Jaitley. He presided over both demonetisation and GST as the finance minister. But his cool demeanour and sharp wit helped him sail through most press conferences. He was unapologetic about the Modi government’s policies and he managed to do it with a wry smile.
Sitharaman, however, has lashed out at a delegate, while interacting with industry experts at the BJP office in Pune to discuss GST, by telling him he couldn’t criticise GST since it was now the country’s ‘kanoon (law)’ and that “we can’t say what a God damn structure is this” because it had been made a law after much deliberation. She was criticised heavily for this interaction.
Foul is fair?
Over the years, Sitharaman has had many infamous disagreements, which can be interpreted as arrogance by some and assertiveness by others. Her 2018 spat with Karnataka state minister Sa Ra Mahesh during an official meeting to review the military’s rescue and relief operations in rain-ravaged Kodagu was much publicised. She was asked to wrap up her meeting due to lack of time, but reportedly said, “I am a central minister and I am following your instructions. Unbelievable!”
Or take her leaked audio clip where she was heard allegedly scolding SBI chairman Rajnish Kumar for making 2.5 lakh bank accounts of tea garden workers in Assam defunct for lack of KYC. She was heard telling him, “nothing makes up for your inefficiency,” and “you are a heartless bank”.
Sitharaman also allegedly snubbed Russian equipment and defence firms in the 2018 DefExpo in Tamil Nadu, which she visited as Defence Minister. Later, a top Russian executive at the expo said, “This is what the India-Russia defence relationship has come to. India’s political environment is no longer that friendly to Russia.” He added that Sitharaman’s snub was “deliberate”.
Angry and unanswerable
Much of what Nirmala Sitharaman does must be directed through the Prime Minister’s Office, but she ends up getting the flak for the way she conducts herself as a minister.
Of late, during the stimulus package press briefings, Sitharaman’s outbursts at Rahul Gandhi’s ‘dramebaazi’ or her arrogant folded-hands at Sonia Gandhi and the opposition has glued her angry image.
Sitharaman’s conduct is beginning to make the office of the Finance Minister look high-handed. It also makes her look as though she’s constantly being attacked, which is why she is always on the defensive. Stoicism can take people a long way in politics, something that Congress president Sonia Gandhi has mastered in spite of being toxically attacked almost every day.
But Sitharaman clearly is not polite on most occasions. No one is expecting her to be polite just because she’s a woman. People expect her to be polite because she is deciding people’s futures in a horrific lockdown with her economic packages. It’s completely justified for the media to ask her tough, or even uncomfortable, questions, and she is answerable to the people of India. In fact, Sitharaman’s early role as BJP spokesperson should have made her all the more friendly to the media.
But her image now is not working for a government already on the back foot due to a pandemic.
The author is a political observer and writer. Views are personal.
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