India got its new defence minister, Nirmala Sitharaman on Sunday, who became the first woman defence minister to act independently on this post, and second after Indira Gandhi who managed this portfolio while being the PM.
In a crucial time of national security, border tensions and internal struggles within the country, India’s defence finds itself with a challenge to provide security to its citizens. Escalations by nuclear-armed regional countries has also become a concern, as China and North Korea grow aggressive. In the cabinet reshuffle that took place yesterday, Nirmala Sitharaman was named the defence minister of India, thereby taking charge of a crucial portfolio that will oversee the concerns that India is currently focussed on. Her appointment, widely met with appreciation, has created waves.
Sitharaman’s post makes her the second woman to hold the post of a defence minister of India, although she is the first woman to be holding the post independently. Indira Gandhi was the first woman to be an Indian defence minister though she was also the Prime Minister during the two times she was on the post. Globally, Sitharaman joins 15 other women who head their countries as defence ministers.
Nirmala Sitharaman an inspired choice as Defence minister. Will handle MoD bureaucrats well, handle China, Pak with finesse & strength
— Minhaz Merchant (@MinhazMerchant) September 3, 2017
Sitharam’s appointment, who was previously state minister of commerce, has seen praise pouring in as number of women in the political workforce of the country remains in negligible numbers. In a report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and UN Women earlier this year, titled the ‘Women in Politics 2017 Map’, India ranked at a low 148 for women in roles in the executive government, and 88 in the number of women ministers, having 18.5 pc women in the cabinet. Adding to this, the significance of an important portfolio such as defence, which has not seen a woman heading its ministry in over 30 years, is a moment to be marked.
Besides the political significance of the move, Sitharam’s role as a defence minister may bring out certain structural reforms in the Indian Armed Forces itself. It has been a recent development that the Indian armed forces have considered permitting women to take up roles in combat or permanent commissions, with the Indian Army declaring such an intent this year and the Indian Air Force allowing specific ones as well as the Indian Navy making case based exceptions. The symbolic significance of the defence ministry being led by a woman may go a long way in bringing overdue changes on norms and recruitment opportunities that are gender biased.
Tall task ahead
Sitharaman’s most recent duty was at the helm of the ministry for commerce and industry, where she served as a chief negotiator in India’s global trade talks. She was previously a noted spokeswoman for the current ruling party, Bharatiya Janata Party during their election campaign in 2014, and has also worked for the National Commission of Women. Her appointment, though celebrated, has come under criticism by a few for her alleged inability to make a significant impact in India’s export growth and other key verticals where she could have made an impact in her previous capacity. Some are hence left worried about her competence to lead the world’s third largest military as well as to tackle the regional power shifts in Asia that have led to escalations by nuclear capable countries.
Some of the challenges beyond regional considerations are the internal security conditions in sensitive border areas as well as in regions such as Kashmir. Sitharaman is also expected to lead and ink deals relating to procurement of modernised defence equipment, while also balancing the ‘Make In India’ programme that is promoting in a large scale defence manufacturing in India. As Sitharaman joins women in respective posts in global powerhouses such as Germany and France, her performance in the defence ministry is being awaited with anticipation.