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Nirmala Sitharaman: The most celebrated name in the new cabinet merely an accidental appointment?

Charu Kartikeya | Updated on: 5 September 2017, 12:11 IST

BJP's decision to field Nirmala Sitharaman as the new Defence Minister has been celebrated by many as a landmark moment. The ministry has almost always been a men's club and her entry has been hailed as the shattering of a “glass ceiling”. That fact does speak for itself, but the full picture isn't exactly as it has been made out to be.

Well-placed sources in the BJP have told Catch that Sitharaman was the not the first choice for the position and the job landed at her door only after having been rejected by many others.

Not one, not two, but as many as three senior Union ministers were asked to sign up for the defence ministry but they refused, sources said. That also breaks the running narrative around Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the unquestioned leader, but more on that later.

All these three ministers are still said to be a part of the Modi-government but were given their current portfolios only after they expressed their inability to take charge at the defence ministry. These ministers were wary of the fact that the stature of the defence minister has been cut to size in the current dispensation, which is a double thumbs-down given the constant tensions on the eastern as well as western frontiers of the country.

These three ministers felt that it is the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) that has come to be increasingly running all affairs related to the defence establishment, from defence procurement to handling military operations. And this has severely limited the role of the defence minister in the day to day as well as momentous decisions of the ministry, reducing the incumbent to the stature of a deputy to powers that be in the PMO.

So comprehensive is this side-lining of the defence minister that, of late, even major defence deals are said to have been announced in the absence of the minister. The ministry has also been kept as an additional charge for a large part of the Modi government's tenure, under Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. The Modi government, in fact, began with a part-time defence minister.

Jaitley also looked after the defence ministry from May 2014 to November 2014 after which Manohar Parrikar was appointed as full-time minister. He served till March 2017, before being packed off to Goa to help the party win the Assembly polls there.

The ministry was once again allotted as additional charge to Jaitley and that's how it has been for six months now.

Sources said Sitharaman was approached after the refusal by these three ministers and she was forced to accept it, a decision attributable to many reasons.

One, Sitharaman is far too junior as compared to the other three and couldn't say no like they did. She was only one of the BJP's many spokespersons before the party came to power in 2014. The other three are said to be part of the party's senior-most leadership.

The other reason that may have motivated Sitharaman to accept the new role is that in public perception, it amounts to a promotion in rank and stature. Till now, she was only a junior minister, in-charge of the Ministry of Commerce & Industry as Minister of State (Independent Charge) and of the Finance and Corporate Affairs department as Minister of State. The latter falls under the Ministry of Finance, led by Arun Jaitley.

Her appointment as defence minister is an elevation, bringing her at par with Jaitley, her former senior, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Home Minister Rajnath Singh. Together, they comprise the prestigious Cabinet Committee on Security, chaired by the PM himself.

However, in light of the information shared by the BJP sources, this does not appear to be a promotion for Sitharaman. In fact, she appears to have become an accidental defence minister. A promotion for her would also have been odd considering her below-par performance in her previous assignment as commerce minister.

Foreign trade policy and performance of the export sector were major challenges faced by the Modi government and Sitharaman is widely believed to have failed to make a difference. In fact, under her watch, Indian exports reportedly shrank right from December 2014 to September 2016.

Industries like textiles also reportedly delivered a lacklustre performance under her. India's garment experts were at just about $17 billion in the fiscal year 2015-16, while Bangladesh's garment industry sent exports worth $28.09 billion in the same period, with a 10.21% growth from the previous year. Vietnam's registered fabric and garment exports were also worth $23 billion in 2016.

First published: 4 September 2017, 18:50 IST
Charu Kartikeya @CharuKeya

Assistant Editor at Catch, Charu enjoys covering politics and uncovering politicians. Of nine years in journalism, he spent six happily covering Parliament and parliamentarians at Lok Sabha TV and the other three as news anchor at Doordarshan News. A Royal Enfield enthusiast, he dreams of having enough time to roar away towards Ladakh, but for the moment the only miles he's covering are the 20-km stretch between home and work.