Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s Union Budget 2021 is bold, well thought out, and prudent. But most importantly, this could be that turning point after which Sitharaman can be taken more seriously, managing to get rid of all the negative comments and harsh criticism — some of it valid, and some the result of a deeply sexist culture — that has come her way since she took over as defence, and then, finance minister.
This could well be the breakout moment for Sitharaman, with larger repercussions for her party. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the one thing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has sorely lacked is grooming new talent, and even more jarringly, creating a solid rung of formidable women politicians. Where are the women leaders in the BJP? Why has the party failed to strike a balance and produce, say another Sushma Swaraj? A woman politician with political, electoral and administrative heft. This, especially when the trend in several other political parties is quite different.
I have argued in the past that the Modi government needs more lateral entrants like External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, especially to handle the finance ministry, given the poor bench-strength of the party. But Budget 2021 shows there is still hope left and with this, Nirmala Sitharaman may well be at the cusp of a transition. Though, of course, the journey to filling in the formidable shoes of someone like Sushma Swaraj still remains long and hard.
BJP’s missing woman leader
That Indian politics is a male-dominated world is more of a truism than an issue to debate. But even so, formidable women politicians across party lines have made an indelible mark on the polity, including those from the BJP. When the BJP began rising in its national profile and presence since the early 1990s, its main architects may have been Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani. But Sushma Swaraj and Uma Bharti were faces, and more importantly, voices that became part of the bouquet that came to define the party.
Firebrand, feisty, and with a mass base, these women leaders ticked many boxes for their party, including speaking its language of Hindutva-laden, polarising politics. Ironically, it is in the Modi-Shah era that both lost their gleam, largely a result of intra-party politics and poor health. Sushma Swaraj, for instance, even as external affairs minister, was reduced to a pale shadow of her earlier self. And yet, in her passing, there was a sense of deep loss not just for the BJP, but Indian politics as a whole.
Former Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje has been another formidable woman leader in the BJP. But her loss in the last state assembly election, along with the high command’s constant tussle with her has meant her relegation to a corner from where the chances of her political re-emergence appear dim.
Look across party lines. The most powerful person in the Congress for decades now has been Sonia Gandhi. Both Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati have redefined the political landscape of their respective states of West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. Jayalalithaa was a hugely popular and successful chief minister. Mehbooba Mufti is a power to reckon with in Jammu and Kashmir, admitted even by the Modi government, which was visible in her prolonged detention after the abrogation of Article 370. The Nationalist Congress Party has a Supriya Sule, the Shiromani Akali Dal has Harsimrat Kaur Badal, and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi has K. Kavitha. One might throw in the dynasty argument, but that is applicable to men in politics as well.
In the Modi-Shah era, the only two women leaders in the BJP who have risen to prominence are Smriti Irani and Nirmala Sitharaman. And yet, both have had a chequered and often unflattering record.
The need for a breakout moment
Smriti Irani has proved her mettle electorally, becoming the dynasty slayer with her massive win in Amethi, defeating Rahul Gandhi, in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. But while she may have proved that she is a force to watch out for, Irani’s record in the government has been anything but impressive. Irani, in fact, got her taste of success fairly early when she was given the prestigious Human Resource Development portfolio after the BJP came to power at the Centre in 2014. Things, however, went quickly downhill for this gritty politician. A string of avoidable controversies, brazen display of hubris, poor people management, and much bad press later, Irani found herself stumbling from one demotion to another.
Post her Amethi win, even though Irani may not have got the most plum of portfolios, the leader seems to have found her feet and hasn’t had any missteps since. But could Modi and Shah have handled her unfortunate first stint better? Perhaps. The role of true leaders is to groom, guide, and galvanise their subordinates, not offer public embarrassments in the form of demotions.
Nirmala Sitharaman, meanwhile, hasn’t had it easy either. She was a surprise pick as the defence minister in 2017, and then later as finance minister in 2019. Nirmala has never been a political heavyweight and has no mass base whatsoever. What, however, made matters worse was the poor grip over domain issues she displayed as minister of two key portfolios.
Then, there were some unfortunate faux pas. Her statement in Parliament on onions, for instance, where during a debate on the steep rise in the price of onions, she declared she came from a family that neither ate onions nor garlic. As silly, facetious, and insensitive as her comment may have been, the ridicule she got in return was replete with sexism. The trending Twitter hashtag #SayItLikeNirmalaTai said it all.
With the Indian economy witnessing a steep slide and the government reacting to it unimaginatively, it was Nirmala Sitharaman who became the scapegoat.
Monday, however, may have ushered in a new dawn, with Nirmala Sitharaman presenting a much-appreciated Budget, finally looking in control and managing to silence her critics. There, however, is still a long and arduous road ahead before Modi-Shah’s BJP gets its own version of a Sushma Swaraj.
Views are personal.