I have to make an effort to smile: Different strokes with Nirmala Sitharaman

Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByKumkum Chadha
Nov 02, 2018 06:13 PM IST

Nirmala Sitharaman’s ‘wow’ moment came when she flew a Sukhoi... at the end of a 44-minute flight, the thrill of “having done it” replaced her initial fears.

If Nirmala Sitharaman’s job as defence minister gave her the opportunity to go on a sortie in a Sukhoi fighter jet, it also took away the joy of going down south to make pickle.

Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman at her home in Safdarjung, New Delhi.(Burhaan Kinu/HT Photo)
Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman at her home in Safdarjung, New Delhi.(Burhaan Kinu/HT Photo)

As BJP spokesperson, she had walked up to the then party Chief Nitin Gadkari and sought permission to go home. When she told him it was to make pickle, his jaw dropped: “kya Nirmala jee, achar ke liye” (what Nirmala ji, to make pickle), he had then said. She actually took time to explain to him how important the ritual was to her family and she, for the life of her, would not give it a go-by.

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Nirmala married into a family where pickles are “serious business”. Like many families in Andhra Pradesh, her in-laws too followed the tradition of sending pickle to their daughter’s married home. The maika ka achaar, pickle from the parents’ home, being a big thing back home. Like a good daughter-in-law, Nirmala diligently worked on the pickle and packed off generous amounts to her sister-in-law’s home.

Of pickles and politics

Had a friend not offered to pitch in, Nirmala would have probably walked up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and sought pickle-leave. “A friend is filling in for me to make the pickle so this time I will be in Delhi,” she says. But this does not mean that she will give up on making pickle. The plan is to make it on a weekend and in lesser quantities than she normally does. This time around she has settled for pilla avvakai, or the pickle made from smaller, baby mangoes.

“Sometimes you handpick the kachcha, raw, ones and make pickle which is what I did this year. Since there is a combination of Tamil and Telugu in me, I often do pickle the way Tamilians do because I do not want the habit to go out of me,” Nirmala says, while sipping tea - the way South Indians do coffee - from a stainless steel tumbler and dabarah or davara, the traditional container to cool the coffee.

Her guests meanwhile are served in fine china. The tumbler has often surprised foreign visitors, even one from Kazakhstan, who wondered “why she is not sharing what she herself is drinking”. But even for the sake of protocol, Nirmala has not given up the tumbler. Like on many other things, even on this she has stood on her own.

Nirmala Sitharaman’s home in Delhi is perhaps among the few to grow betel leaf and turmeric which comes handy during festivals. (Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)
Nirmala Sitharaman’s home in Delhi is perhaps among the few to grow betel leaf and turmeric which comes handy during festivals. (Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)

“During Ganesh Chaturthi, if you serve modak (sweetmeat) rolled in haldi leaf it has a distinctive aroma,” she explains sitting on the jhoola, an heirloom from her mother’s side of the family. Its brass may have lost its shine, but the workmanship is exemplary.

From a sales girl to Defence Minister

Nirmala Sitharaman has also travelled quite a distance from being a salesgirl in a home-store in London to being at the helm in India. She has excelled in both. As salesgirl, she even won a bottle of champagne for registering the highest sales during Christmas.

When she and her husband took a conscious decision to return to India because they wanted their child to be born on Indian soil, politics was not on the radar. She had chucked up her “big break” job with PricewaterhouseCoopers to return to India, just like she had ditched her Ph.D. to marry Prabhakar Parakala, whom she had met during her JNU days. Also, like her mother, she stuck to her maiden name and preferred Sitharaman to Parakala.

On being compared to Indira Gandhi

But then many things in Nirmala’s life have happened without a plan. From joining politics, to rising to the enviable position of Defence Minister and her name mentioned alongside Indira Gandhi’s. Whether Nirmala takes pride in that is debatable but the fact remains that she is the second woman after Indira Gandhi to hold the Defence portfolio.

Nirmala Sitharaman during a photo shoot at her residence in Safdarjung, New Delhi. (Burhaan Kinu/HT Photo)
Nirmala Sitharaman during a photo shoot at her residence in Safdarjung, New Delhi. (Burhaan Kinu/HT Photo)

Like Indira Gandhi, Nirmala has a tough exterior but encased within is a heart that beats and often bleeds. The death of her mother took away much from her. “It was very painful to see her struggling…at one point she did not even know who I was. That almost killed me,” she says. It was then that she became a recluse, shutting out the world and stepping out only when absolutely necessary. This may have also been the time that she lost her smile too.

However, Nirmala’s interactions with soldiers has somewhat restored the smile, even as she hops from border to border or spends a night mid-sea, or travels to Sir Creek, thoroughly enjoying being Defence Minister “every bit”.

Conquering the skies

Even while India rejoiced at a woman being sworn in as Defence Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman’s wow moment came much later. It was when she was conquering the skies onboard the Sukhoi. When she had said “yeah I will do it” she did not know what she was in for. At that point in time she did not even know the difference between a mirage fighter jet and a Sukhoi. It was not till she was told the dangers, that she developed cold feet.

“When I was cautioned about the speed and the fact that the blood flow could stop and not reach the brain, I stopped short and asked myself whether I was doing the right thing.” It was then that fear replaced the initial excitement but once up in the air, she did not need anyone to hold her hand. “The height tells you that it is a different horse that you are riding,” adds Sitharaman.

At the end of a 44-minute flight, Nirmala was a different person. “More than the thrill, the feeling of having actually done it, was a proud moment for me,” she says. But her “real moment” came when a group of kids spontaneously saluted her during one of her visits to her home state. “It was being recognized for doing something completely different. Women from unexpected quarters have written in to tell me that they feel empowered because the Defence minister is a woman,” she adds.

Working with the men in uniform

Nirmala Sitharaman’s life may have been full of challenges but being the lone woman at the head of the oval table amid stiff lipped officers in uniform with a chest full of medals is quite another thing.

Even while saying that it was not inhibiting, Sitharaman had to break the ice more than once. When she said she wanted a daily briefing from all the service chiefs, it was seen as an overreach. When she decided to bridge the gap between the uniform and the civilian segments in the Ministry, she was seen as over-ambitious. And when she said that she wanted the Defence Acquisition Council to meet twice a month, many threw up their hands in desperation.

But Nirmala being Nirmala did not give in. “I told them that they could slam me or blame me, but give me the benefit of trying to set things in order,” she says.

At the outset, Nirmala did not come across as a Ms. know-all but to quote her, “I put my ignorance on the table.” The move worked to her advantage. “They felt that here was a person who was willing to learn, but at the same time was not ready to give in. The combination helped and I was taken seriously from day one.” That is not at all surprising because tough as she comes across to most, Nirmala Sitharaman does not allow anyone to take liberties with her. She never has.

Hit by allegations relating to the Rafale aircraft deal, the BJP government seems to be facing its Bofors moment. Sitharaman dismisses the comparison. “Where are the middlemen here? Where is a Quattrocchi kind of figure? Bofors is Bofors while Rafale is a government to government agreement done in national interest and keeping in mind the operational preparedness of the Air Force. I don’t know what the Congress is looking for but they sure are not going to have the luck they want to. They are making allegations without any homework and this, to say the least, is highly irresponsible,” says Sitharaman.

‘Mere drop on a lotus leaf’

Despite her elevated stature, Nirmala believes that destiny has a major role in shaping up her life. “Without providential help I cannot be where I am today. There is someone above who is working things out.” It is in this context that Nirmala has described herself as a “mere drop on a lotus leaf” more than once. This has also helped her being detached from things she once loved. The school for the underprivileged, for instance, that she once started or her family with who she remains connected more through photographs thanks to a grueling schedule.

“Today I can drive past that institution without even turning my head to see it. And yes, I miss my family but remain connected through pictures.”

Sitharaman attributes this sense and strength of detachment to being a Krishna devotee in a Ram-obsessed party that the BJP is. “There is no contradiction at all,” she says as she speaks of weaving Krishna’s philosophy into the crucial portfolio she has been entrusted with. “I draw inspiration from Krishna who did not think war was untouchable and that it is one’s dharma to fight when necessary,” she says.

Whether there are any lessons in this for the armed forces is difficult to say. But Sitharaman has her tasks cut out. This, despite the fact that when she set foot in the Defence Ministry, she did it defying the Pitra-paksh (an inauspicious time astrologically). But so far, the going has been good.

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