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Nirmala Sitharaman becomes India’s 2nd woman defence minister after Indira Gandhi

LiveMint logoLiveMint 03-09-2017 Tarun Shukla

New Delhi: Nirmala Sitharaman will be the new defence minister of India, the government announced on Sunday.

Sitharaman becomes the nation’s second woman defence minister. Indira Gandhi was the first. She held the defence ministry in 1975 and 1980-82.

Madurai-born Sitharaman, who was earlier minister of state for commerce, has a masters in economics from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and has worked for PwC, London and briefly with BBC World Service.

She joined the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2008, and was made a member of the National Executive and then nominated as party spokesperson in 2010.

Arun Jaitley has been holding the defence portfolio along with finance after former defence minister Manohar Parrikar returned to his home state of Goa in March.

“Work has been on during Mr. Jaitley’s time but a full-time minister will help move things faster especially in the process of strategic partnerships,” said a senior executive of a private sector defence company who did not wish to be named.

The much-awaited strategic partnership model will allow local private sector companies to form joint ventures with foreign defence equipment makers—a shot in the arm for the government’s ‘Make in India’ programme as well as efforts by the Indian private sector to make inroads into the lucrative defence equipment business.

Larsen and Toubro Ltd, Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd, Reliance Infrastructure Ltd, Tata Group and Adani Group are among Indian companies that are likely to benefit the most from the strategic partnerships.

A February 2015 report by lobby group Ficci and Centrum Capital estimated that by 2022, the annual opportunity for Indian companies, both state-owned and private, would be around $41 billion. That number could increase further because of the new policy.

The Indian defence industry is currently dominated by state-owned manufacturers such as Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd.

For a government that came to office vowing to take a tough stance against terrorism and Pakistan besides prioritising national security, one of the first things that stood out was that the defence ministry did not have a full-time minister.

The portfolio was first handed on 27 May 2014 to Jaitley.

It was three months later, on 9 November 2014, that Parikkar was given full-time charge of the post. But with the BJP forming a government in Goa after the February polls earlier this year, Parikkar quit on 13 March to become the chief minister of the state for the third time. This meant the defence ministry went headless for a second time and the charge of the ministry was handed back to finance minister Jaitley.

The need for a full-time defence minister for India cannot be overstated, said former navy commodore C.U. Bhaskar, who is now director at the Delhi-based Society for Policy Studies think tank. “The priorities before a full-time minister will include initiating higher defence reforms and updating existing structures that are inadequate” to deal with the complex challenges facing the country, he said.

Discussions on reforming defence planning and the way the ministry functions including intelligence gathering have been on since 1999 when India was surprised by Pakistan sending in army regulars and terrorists to capture crucial heights in Kashmir’s Kargil region. It took the Indian army two months and the deaths of some 500 soldiers to evict the intruders.

“There have been many suggestions whose implementation have been pending since the Kargil days,” said Bhaskar. “There have been full-time defence ministers since then but none of them have shown the inclination or the capacity to challenge the status quo,” he said.

India has been facing terrorism supported by Pakistan for many decades. In the early 1980s, Pakistan supported a Sikh insurgency in Punjab state. Since 1989 onwards, Pakistan has been accused by India of aiding an insurgency in Kashmir.

In recent years, the challenge has been containing terrorism abetted by Pakistan as well as respond to Pakistan’s violations of a 2003 ceasefire agreement along the India-Pakistan borders.

Another threat has been India’s strategic rival China’s emergence and its regional and global ambitions. With a long unsettled border, incursions have been common. But a measure of the complexity of the relationship came to the fore during the 73-day military faceoff in Doklam in Bhutan that ended on 28 August. It began on 16 June after Indian troops intervened to stop Chinese troops from constructing a road on the Doklam plateau after Bhutanese objections to the incident were ignored by the Chinese. It was the longest confrontation between the Asian giants in two decades.

On defence modernisation and acquisitions, “a full-time defence minister is key to sign off on new purchases and even take critical decisions,” said a government official who declined to be named.

The wish list for hardware procurement for the Indian armed forces include submarines and helicopters for the Indian navy, fighter jets for the Indian Air Force and critical equipment for the Indian Army’s infantry divisions besides ammunition, say people familiar with the development, requesting anonymity.

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