In her first message after assuming charge as the Defence Minister on 7 September 2107, Mrs. Nirmala Sitharaman said, “My priority will definitely be the Armed Forces preparedness. It is important that the Indian Armed Forces receive the attention in terms of giving them every endowment and equipment necessary for them to perform their duty with the best of equipment available,” and added that she will also be pursuing alongside, ‘Make in India’ and welfare of soldiers and their families.
Taking charge of the Defence Ministry from Finance Minister Arun Jaitley who was holding additional charge of it since March 2017, she became the first full-time woman Defence Minister of the country. Her gender predecessor in the distant past was Mrs Indira Gandhi, who, as the Prime Minister held additional charge of the Defence Ministry.
Mrs Sitharaman assumed charge shortly after Mr. Jaitley’s announcement in August 2017 that the government has decided to implement 65 of the 99 recommendations of the Shekatkar Committee pertaining to the Army. The panel was appointed to recommend measures to enhance combat capability of the armed forces.
“I shall attend to all the long pending issues and in consultation and the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), ensure that those pending issues are resolved…We shall ensure that the important characters of what makes ‘Make in India’ an important flagship programme of the Prime Minister is given full play for defence production, because India, as you know, is a very big defence equipment procurer,” Mrs. Sitharaman stated.
On her other priority of armed forces families and their welfare, Mrs. Sitharaman said, “Let us not for a moment forget that it is in their welfare, in their families’ welfare that we can ensure that the soldiers at the very toughest borders, challenging zones in which they are protecting this country, remain absolutely assured that their interests are being taken care of.” Pledging to do her best to ensure “defence and defence priorities are well attended to,” she added, “I shall be round the clock available.”
The general opinion of services officers during the tenure of Mrs. Sitharaman’s recent predecessor, Mr. Manohar Parrikar was that he was quite accessible, unlike some of his predecessors. Mrs. Sitharaman’s reported intent of daily/frequent interactions with the three Services Chiefs is a well-meant positive step and a definite indicator of her being accessible.
Born on August 18, 1959, in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, Mrs. Sitharaman graduated in economics from Seethalakshmi Ramaswamy College in Tiruchirapalli and did her masters in economics from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Thereafter, in London she did a stint with the Agricultural Engineers Association, worked as senior manager (research and analysis) with Pricewaterhouse Coopers and did a short stint with BBC.
With that creditable record, back in India, she became a member of the National Council for Women from 2003 to 2005, BJP’s national executive from 2006, being elected as the party’s spokesperson in 2010. Known to be a prolific reader and writer, whose columns are incisive and impactful, as a spokesperson she has been articulate, assertive and yet proper in panel discussions, which often become like fish markets. She reportedly penned press releases herself and meticulously edited any conversation of the party that went to the media. About the contentious Article 370 regarding the status of Jammu and Kashmir in India, she said that back in 1964 the Prime Minister had himself said that there are ways to slowly do away with the provision and it was not an unheard of topic being put up for discussion.
As the new Defence Minister, Mrs. Sitharaman has a huge chunk of tasks. Modernisation of the three services, follow-up of many projects related to defence production and agreements on acquisitions already underway will require relentless pursuit and prodding of the Defence Ministry’s bureaucratic machinery.
With all that Mrs. Sitharaman has expressed and with all that needs to be done, given her past record, there seems no doubt that with her sincerity, determination, drive and her fresh approach, much will be achieved to strengthen India’s military muscle.