NEW DELHI: The biggest message from Sunday’s Union Cabinet reshuffle was the elevation of Nirmala Sitharaman as the country’s first woman defence minister. Sitharaman, 58, will take charge from incumbent Arun Jaitley on September 6 when the latter returns from a visit to Japan.
The only time another woman held the crucial portfolio was when former prime minister Indira Gandhi held the additional charge of the Defence Ministry.
Nirmala succeeds Jaitley, who was holding additional charge of the key ministry, at a time when the borders with both Pakistan and China are volatile. Jaitley, who had earlier held the defence portfolio, again got the responsibility in March after incumbent Manohar Parikkar moved back to his home state Goa as the CM.
Nirmala’s new role is being seen as a reward for performing well as minister of state (independent charge) in the Commerce Ministry and for articulating Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision in the international fora. She recently attended a BRICS meeting in China.
As defence minister, she would be part of the all-powerful Cabinet Committee on Security, which will, for the first time, have two women members, the other being external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj.
Besides sending a positive message across the country, Nirmala’s elevation will also boost the BJP’s prospects in her home state Tamil Nadu.
Before being inducted in the Cabinet, Nirmala had been a vocal party spokesperson and was often seen presenting the party’s views in TV debates. Her appointment would also disseminate the PM’s message of woman power even as the Indian Air Force had inducted women fighter pilots for the first time in June.
However, the professional upgrade will bring its own challenges for Nirmala, including strengthening the defence apparatus and dealing with difficult neighbours like Pakistan and China. The appointment would also help the government stave off the charge that India has no full-time defence minister.
Nirmala would also need to work on improving the finances of the Defence Ministry. Following the closure of a deal with France for 36 Rafale fighter jets at a cost of €7.87 billion, the Centre has to select a fighter jet to be built indigenously with significant technology transfer. Further, in October last, India and Russia had concluded IGAs for five S-400 Triumf air defence systems and four stealth frigates and signed a stakeholder agreement for Kamov-226T utility helicopters, together worth over $10 billion. The final contracts are yet to be signed.
On November 30, the Defence Ministry signed the Letter of Acceptance for 145 M777 ultra-light Howitzers in a deal worth $737 million. All these deals are between governments and have offset clauses under which the companies are contract-bound to invest in India to source components.