Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman does all the right things. Or at least gives the appearance thereof. In Kolkata, she wipes her tears because she got emotional listening to a rendition of Vande Mataram. On India TV, speaking in halting but excellent Hindustani, she praises the Indian media for its “pardafash” of Pakistani fake news on Pulwama. Then she is at Tiruchirapalli to receive the mortal remains of Sivachandran C, the CRPF jawan from Kargudi, Tamil Nadu, martyred in the Pulwama attack on February 14. And again, sitting straightbacked and serious, at a Cabinet Committee on Security meeting chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval (the last not in the formal picture).
For the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Nirmala Sitharaman is the right woman for the right job at the right time, posing for worthy photo-ops on exotic occasions and in faraway locations, from spending Dussehra with troops in the Siachen base camp to a sortie in a Sukhoi in Jodhpur. Add to that her defence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on matters as wide ranging as Nirav Modi and Rafale, even officially as minister, and she is clearly a highly prized asset. On occasion, she even gets a very public pat on the back — as on January 4, when after her performance in Parliament, Prime Minister Modi tweeted the YouTube link of the speech calling it a “Must watch!”. The praise was dutifully echoed by both Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and BJP president Amit Shah.
When she was appointed Union Minister for Defence in 2017, she was one of 13 female defence ministers in the world. Tiffany D. Barnes, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at University of Kentucky, and Diana Z. O’Brien, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Texas A&M University, say this global trend is cause for both optimism and pessimism. In their paper, Defending the Realm: The Appointment of Female Defence Ministers Worldwide, they say the feminisation of politics will likely erode traditional patterns of male dominance in many arenas. “As more women are elected to national legislatures, we expect to see more female appointees to powerful posts. On the other hand, women’s appointment may not always represent the breakdown of male power, as much as the shifting of power to other realms.”
And here lies the nub. Sitharaman was appointed defence minister in September 2017. NSA Ajit Doval was appointed chair of a newly formed Defence Planning Committee shortly thereafter in April 2018. The remit of the Defence Planning Committee: to evolve a national security strategy, focus on a capability development plan based on the assessment of threat and procurements from within via the defence industrial complex and from outside. More importantly, its members include the defence secretary, foreign secretary, expenditure secretary, the three service chiefs, and the chief of Integrated Defence Staff, thus creating a parallel structure with more power than the defence minister.
The Defence Planning Committee completely sidelines the defence minister’s position in the Cabinet Committee on Security. Editor, Force, Pravin Sawhney, reinforces this: “After the formation of the Defence Planning Committee headed by the NSA, the defence minister has officially been divested of all responsibilities of the defence ministry. Her job as the defence minister is now only ceremonial. The power and responsibility is vested in the National Security Adviser, to whom the three service chiefs report. Given this, she is not required to perform as the defence minister. This is a major change made in the Cabinet Committee on Security by the Modi government.” In any case, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee created the post of National Security Adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) after the nuclear tests in 1998, he had already eroded the power of the defence and foreign ministers.
Not just that, employment generation through Make in India was a major part of the defence minister’s work. There were to be defence corridors, one in Uttar Pradesh and the other in Tamil Nadu, which was to be Sitharaman’s way into state politics. Nothing much has happened there either, except for a formal launch in January.
National security expert Bharat Karnad puts it quite bluntly: “There was a reason to install Nirmala Sitharaman, a junior party apparatchik and political lightweight with no constituency of her own as defence Minister: She would be more amenable to direction by the PMO. In the first year or so of her tenure, with no intuitive grasp of the subjects she handled, she frequently crossed over to North Block to ask Finance Minister (and sometime Defence Minister) Arun Jaitley, about what decisions to make. It convinced the PMO that it had made the right choice because Jaitley, as a rule, decided on defence issues only after first consulting with the PM. In this respect, both Jaitley and, even more, Sitharaman, were a welcome contrast to the late Manohar Parrikar, who kept his own counsel.”
An IIT-trained metallurgical engineer, Parrikar approached defence issues with a problem-solving mindset, adds Karnad. This meant analysing complex military matters on the basis of hard criteria, and the cost-benefit angle. When applied to military procurement, especially the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft, his focus on cost-benefit analysis led to Parrikar’s rift with the PMO, notes Karnad. He goes on: “Unlike Modi’s preference for the French Rafale fighter plane, Parrikar was tilting towards the immensely more economical option of augmenting the Indian Air Force (IAF)’s fleet of Su-30MKIs — rated by renowned fighter aviation experts such as Dr. Carlo Kopp as the best combat aircraft in the world. This aircraft, upgraded to the ‘Super Sukhoi’ configuration, would instantly vault the IAF to the front rank. Moreover, with Su-30MKIs already being assembled in HAL, Nashik, it would result in additional production contracts for HAL and more of the monies expended on acquisition of the MMRCA remaining in the country. Furthermore, it would improve the nightmarish logistics problem owing to too many types of front line planes.”
Unable to use Parrikar’s kind of metrics and disinclined, in any case, to take the more risky, independent path, Sitharaman has simply done the PMO’s bidding, including rubber-stamping the Rafale decision, Karnad says.
Sitharaman has added to her credibility with the PMO by vociferously defending the Rafale deal inside Parliament and out of it. In many ways, it was her performance as spokeswoman for the party between 2010 and 2014 that paved the way for Sitharaman’s rise. She would be there every day, unsmiling, sharp, studious and solemn, countering the Congress-led UPA government and the media. She was forever the angry BJP woman, questioning the Lutyens’ elite, detailing UPA’s scams, and berating the government of the day. Many would ask her why she wouldn’t smile, and she would answer by asking how she could possibly do so at the obvious collusion between the establishmentarians. Rajdeep Sardesai, Consulting Editor, India Today TV, recalls of her as being a very fine spokeswoman. “She spoke with clarity and conviction, always came well prepared and, crucially, was made for English news television. She emerged from almost nowhere to be a much sought-after spokeswoman.”
Off screen she was charming and accessible, briefing journalists one-on-one. After she was made the Minister of State for Finance and Corporate Affairs under the Ministry of Finance, and Minister for Commerce and Industry with independent charge, Sitharaman took a few months to acclimatise. Then she made it a ritual to call women journalists to her home for chaiand conversation, a Capital staple that is sorely missed by many. Her performance as minister for commerce was mixed, though. According to Hindustan Times she was a tough negotiator and successfully put across India’s point of view at the World Trade Organisation.
But in his assessment of the Class of 2014, columnist Mihir Sharma said she was ”an especially grave disappointment”. The greatest success of the ministry in charge of trade and Make in India is a rise in foreign direct investment (FDI), he said, adding, “But that’s not a consequence of any changes to policy. Even the recent relaxation in FDI norms was, even Sitharaman insisted, “not a new policy”. What should have been a laser-like focus on reducing paperwork and compliance and increasing service efficiency has been effectively diluted by one headline-grabbing campaign after another.”
Sitharaman is defence minister at an especiallytrying time for the nation. Has the government identified the current threat correctly? Says Sawhney: “The government would like us to believe it is terrorism, but our real threat is external from the growing intraoperability of the Pakistan and Chinese armed forces. Yet this suits Prime Minister Modi and NSA Doval because it allows them to keep the national conversation focused around terrorism, build fences around us, and keep othering the Valley Muslims. What we should be doing instead is building deterrence for which we require both military capability and strengthening the political will by an understanding of military power.”
The Indian Army is 13 lakh strong and the Pakistani Army is six lakh strong, “Yet they keep killing our people in Kashmir,” he notes. But for this government national security equals management of perception, and on paper that looks good: a woman defence minister leading a force where women are now allowed in combat. Never mind that the conditions required for women in combat have not been created.
The former Free Thinker at Jawaharlal Nehru University has, however, endeared herself to the rank and file and the families of the armed forces personnel by trying to resolve their problems. In particular, notes Brigadier (Retd) Gurmeet Kanwal, Sitharaman has taken keen interest in reducing excessive litigation against veterans and their families. Much still needs to be done to streamline defence acquisition procedures and improve operational preparedness, notes Kanwal.
One-time minister of state in commerce, Sitharaman is an unlikely member of the BJP. Appointed to the National Commission for Women on Sushma Swaraj’s recommendation (2003-2005), Sitharaman joined the party in 2006 and slowly came closer to Swaraj’s rival Arun Jaitley who pushed her appointment as a spokeswoman in 2010 during Nitin Gadkari’s tenure as BJP president. Sitharaman’s father in law, Seshavataram Parakala, was a well-known Congress politician and an associate of PV Narasimha Rao, and her husband Prabhakar Parakala served as the communications advisor in the Andhra Pradesh government between 2014 and 2018.
But it is precisely this ideological flexibility, political malleability, and unmatched ability to articulate her party’s position, that makes Sitharaman a valuable ally to the men at the top — even though they ensure she becomes invisible when it comes to critical matters such as the Balakot air strike.
She has the advantage of being a woman of substance. Now all she needs to do is become a defence minister of substance.
The author is a senior journalist and former editor of India Today.
This article has been updated to reflect a change. Prabhakar Parakala was not a cabinet minister in the Andhra Pradesh government but held a cabinet-rank position.