Nirmala Sitharaman’s appointment not about gender: Former military chiefs
Nirmala Sitharaman was appointed as the new defence minister in Sunday’s cabinet reshuffle.Updated: Sep 05, 2017 00:02 IST
Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman, the surprise pick of Sunday’s reshuffle of the union council of ministers, has her task cut out and her appointment should not be seen through the prism of gender, senior serving and retired officers said. The 58-year-old Sitharaman is the first woman to be the full-time defence minister of the country after Indira Gandhi held the portfolio 35 years ago when she was also the prime minister.
“I don’t think it should be seen as a move to empower women. That’s good but not an end in itself. The ultimate goal is to empower the armed forces,” said former IAF chief Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha during whose term the government ended a rigid gender-based combat exclusion policy in the air force two years ago.
Sitharaman’s appointment comes at a time when India’s first female pilots are preparing to fly warplanes after they complete the last leg of their training later this month.
Raha said a key test for Sitharaman would be to introduce accountability for all stake holders.
“When you talk about defence acquisition or defence finance wings, they are important stakeholders but have no accountability. She will have to ensure decisions are outcome based and not process based,” Raha said.
The main challenges that the new minister will face include modernising the military, ushering in big-ticket reforms, managing volatile borders and arranging funds for big buys.
“Weapon buys can’t be seen as just commercial transactions. We can’t lose sight of what is good for the country strategically… Women by nature are very determined and if she can work with the same efficiency as she did in her previous ministry, things will change in the defence ministry,” Raha said.
But what about the criticism that a key portfolio has been given to a relatively less experienced person?
Former northern army commander Lieutenant General DS Hooda doesn’t agree. He said most of Sitharman’s predecessors also did not have “too much of experience “in dealing with defence. “In that sense, it’s not a negative. She’s quite articulate, sincere and has a reputation for being competent. Also, it’s about a person’s calibre and not their gender,” Hooda said. Sitharaman’s promotion complements the reputation she built as a tough negotiator in the commerce ministry.
Former navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash said he would rate her performance on two factors: how much time she devotes her portfolio and if she is able to create a synergy between the military and the bureaucracy.
“This is a 24X7 job and hardly any of her predecessors have devoted sufficient time due to political preoccupation. It will require her full attention,” Prakash said.
She will be responsible for carrying out the modernisation of one of the world’s largest armies before parliamentary elections in 2019. The government is pushing to build fighter planes, submarines and helicopters in the country.
The minister will also be tasked with ushering in military reforms, including creation of a chief of defence staff as principal military adviser to the government, restructuring the Defence Research and Development Organisation and set up special operations, space and cyber commands to fight future wars.
“Gender is no issue. We are only concerned about sharpening the military’s capability swiftly,” said a senior army officer.