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Nirmala Sitharaman: The slow but steady rise of India’s new defence minister

Hindustan Times logo Hindustan Times 04-09-2017
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(Provided by The Times of India)

Until Saturday, she was a goner, at least that’s what media reports claimed. Come Sunday, Nirmala Sitharaman scripted history. (Highlights)

An alumna of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, the 58-year-old BJP leader will be the second woman to be the Raksha Mantri, long held to be a male turf, after Indira Gandhi, India’s first woman prime minister.

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Gandhi was the prime minister when she kept the defence portfolio with herself -- from December 1 to 21, 1975 and January 14, 1980 to January 15, 1982.

Sitharaman, who was the commerce minister before being promoted to the cabinet rank, also breaks into the all-powerful Cabinet Committee of Security. The other members are Prime Minister Narendra Modi, finance minister Arun Jaitley, home minister Rajnath Singh and external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj.

“Somebody who has come from a small town, grown into the party with all the support of the leadership, and if given such responsibility, it just makes you feel sometimes that cosmic grace is there. Otherwise it is impossible,” she told reporters after taking oath.

Her rise in politics has been slow, but steady.

She served as a member of the National Commission for Women between 2003 and 2005. Scholarly and non-controversial, Sitharaman, who also had a stint with PricewaterhouseCoopers research unit in London, was brought into the BJP’s national executive committee in 2008 and appointed party’s national spokesperson in 2010 when Nitin Gadkari took over as the party president.

Sitharaman soon became a prominent face of the BJP on TV. She was among the few party leaders who were articulate, aggressive and could get the view point across effortlessly in English.

In her initial days as spokesperson, the Tamil Nadu-born politician admitted her knowledge of Hindi was limited but she soon had gained proficiency.

She was the favourite when it came to defending Narendra Modi, the then Gujarat chief minister, on the issue of 2002 riots and the RSS on charges of fomenting “Hindu terror”. She did not disappoint the party leadership.

As the spokesperson, she was known to thoroughly research the topics she had to speak on. She maintained a low profile and mostly operated out of a small room in the BJP headquarters. She was also one of the few BJP leaders who carried a laptop.

As the commerce minister, Sitharaman was a tough negotiator and successfully put across India’s point of view at the World Trade Organisation, impressing the Prime Minister.

Her promotion to the cabinet as the defence minister was the second surprise that Modi sprung.

When he picked his team after storming to power in 2014, Modi gave Sitharaman the charge of commerce ministry. She wasn’t even a member of Parliament then.

She is married to Parakala Prabhakar, the communication adviser to Andhra Pradesh chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu, and the couple has a daughter.

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