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A woman defence minister for India: Can she redress the voids?
Posted:Sep 3, 2017
 
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By C Uday Bhaskar
 
Prime Minister  Narendra Modi  broke a symbolic glass ceiling in Indian politics when it was announced that  Nirmala Sitharaman , the erstwhile junior minister for commerce,  had been elevated to cabinet rank and given the portfolio of  Defence Minister. This is the first time that an Indian PM has appointed a woman to a cabinet post that has traditionally been seen as a ‘for men only’ chair.
 
It is not as if a woman has not held this position for, as  Prime Minister,  Indira Gandhi had retained  the defence  portfolio twice – in 1975 and later in the period 1980–82. Furthermore, the Modi team already has high profile women ministers in Sushma Swaraj, Maneka Gandhi, Smriti Irani and Uma Bharati.
 
The new Defence Minister has  a very full plate of challenges in front  of her and the time available to her may be limited. At best 21  months -  before a new government  assumes office in mid 2019.
 
The core of the challenge for India is that the truly effective Defence Ministers have been few – and far between.  In my assessment, after the disastrous tenure of  V K Krishna  Menon - during whose tenure India faced the military debacle from China - it was left to Y B Chavan to repair the damage done to the military as an institution. Over the decades, two ministers who were held in high esteem and who provided the necessary political heft were Jagjivan Ram  - on whose watch the 1971 war for Bangladesh was enabled and  later Ramaswamy Venkataraman, who later became the President of India. 
 
Most other incumbents who were political heavyweights, including  George Fernandes and Pranab Mukherjee,  were  not as effective as they could have been,  due to domestic political  compulsions cum distractions and relatively short tenures.  And the kind of empathy that is required of a Defence Minister with his military top-brass has been largely elusive – and the one minister who exuded it – Arun Singh (as junior minister) paid a heavy price for it.
 
Paradoxically while candidate Modi had flagged national security as a high priority,  he   was either unable or unwilling to identify a full-time Defence Minister. And even when a minister was finally appointed, state politics trumped national security imperatives. Since May 2014 to the Sunday swearing-in, Nirmala  Sitharaman  is the fourth minister  - the pattern being Arun  Jaitley  (dual charge), Manohar  Parrikar, Arun Jaitley (dual charge). It merits recall that India dealt with the 72-day long Doklam stand-off with China  with no full time Defence Minister.  
 
Major structural changes  in higher defence management that were mooted in the aftermath of the 1999 Kargil War with Pakistan remain incomplete due to political indifference and  apathy.
 
The cynical  conclusion in the polity is that the Indian political establishment  is not a committed stakeholder in national security. Interest is episodic  and more often than not, national security issues become toxic political footballs. The Bofors corruption scandal is case in point.
 
National security is being redeemed by the ultimate  sacrifice of the poorly equipped  Indian soldier. The Sri Lanka  fiasco and the Kargil War are testimony.
 
The challenge for Nirmala Sitharaman is to change this reality and perception about  India’s defence and military preparedness and redress the many institutional voids. Her track record suggests that she will make the much awaited difference. 
 
(C Uday Bhaskar is Director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi. He can be contacted at cudaybhaskar@spsindia.in)
 
 
 
 
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