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Nirmala Sitharaman as defence minister is feeble attempt at feminism; don't be fooled by govt spin

This is a post-truth era. Even so, it’s difficult to swallow the feminist spin that’s being given to Nirmala Sitharaman’s surprise appointment as defence minister in Narendra Modi’s latest Cabinet rejig.

First of all, she certainly hasn’t shattered any glass ceiling. That credit goes to Indira Gandhi, India's first woman defence minister. She held the portfolio twice —  for a month in 1975 and  then again between 1980 and 1982 — she affirmed through this move that no male bastion is sacrosanct. Sitharaman is simply walking through a door already opened by Indira.

A file image Nirmala Sitharaman. PTI

File image of Nirmala Sitharaman. PTI

A television commentator trilled her delight that male soldiers would now have to salute a woman. Surely, protocol formalities in a hierarchy driven set up like the armed forces cannot be seen as a step forward for women’s empowerment.

Secondly, the gender logic reeks of tokenism. Arun Jaitley’s comment on Sitharaman’s appointment was an unfortunate reminder of the patronising attitude that continues to colour male perceptions of women in high places. This is the first time in the nation’s history, he boasted, that the Cabinet committee on security will have two women members. The other is Sushma Swaraj.

Two women in the all-important Cabinet committee that takes decisions on all sensitive matters related to national security should be a matter of pride. This is the high table of governance, reserved for the Big Four in the Cabinet: the ministers of home, finance, external affairs and defence. It is chaired by the prime minister.

But drawing a parallel with Sushma Swaraj cannot augur well for Sitharaman in her new role. It is no secret that Swaraj has no say in foreign policy decisions and functions on the margins of her ministry. This is unique to the Modi dispensation.

Traditionally, all prime ministers have been involved in crafting foreign policy since it has to do with the country’s geopolitical and geostrategic interests. But external affairs ministers have always been kept in the loop and have been part of the consultation process.

In the government, foreign policy has become the exclusive domain of the prime minister with primary inputs from National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and secondary inputs from foreign secretary S Jaishankar. Swaraj has little or no idea about key foreign policy initiatives. For instance, she had no clue about Modi’s unannounced visit to Lahore on Christmas Day in 2015 to wish former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif for his birthday.

To her credit, Swaraj has managed to carve a small niche for herself as an agony aunt to Indians in distress across the world. She is active on Twitter and provides help and succor to abducted NRIs, Indians who have lost their passports, anyone who needs urgent medical attention and so on, for which she receives condescending pats on the back from Modi.

Swaraj’s plight is all the more tragic because not only is she a heavyweight in terms of experience and seniority, she has a track record of being a performing minister from her days in the Vajpayee government.

Sitharaman’s profile as defence minister will be shaped by the responsibilities assigned to her and the role she plays in decision making. All the rah-rah rhetoric surrounding her appointment cannot hide the harsh reality of her vulnerabilities. Unlike her illustrious predecessors, which includes heavyweights such as VK Krishna Menon, YB Chavan and Jagjivan Ram, Sitharaman is a political lightweight.

She joined the BJP only in 2006 and became a Member of Parliament for the first time in 2014 after Modi inducted her into his Council of Ministers and gave her the commerce portfolio. Although she is known as an efficient and articulate person, her performance as commerce minister was marred by falling exports and obdurate negotiating positions which at times, proved to be a handicap in her dealings with foreign diplomats.

To be sure, there is plenty of work for a defence minister. And Sitharaman, with her methodical approach and capacity for hard work, may turn out to be an asset and help Modi carry forward his "Make in India" project for defence equipment. But can she be more than a practical implementer of schemes?

Sitharaman certainly brings no domain expertise to her new job. She has little experience of national security and is not known as a visionary. Like Swaraj, she may find herself restricted to a narrow brief and excluded from key policy decisions, especially with respect to our armed forces.

As it happens, even her predecessor Manohar Parrikar was kept out when Pakistani terrorists struck at the Pathankot air base. Doval was in charge of the counter operation and he reported directly to the prime minister. That's the way this government works.

All talk of "nari shakti"’ or women’s empowerment is just window dressing. Here are some interesting statistics that underline how hollow the rhetoric is. Although the Modi government boasts that 20 percent of the Union Cabinet are women, the Council of Ministers is only 12 percent women.

The scarcity of women is evident in the BJP as well. Only one of the eight general secretaries and one of the seven vice-presidents are women. And less than 10 percent of the members of the party’s national executive are women.

Tokenism was the Congress' hallmark. It prided itself on plucking out nonentities from marginalised groups such as Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims, then appointing them to high places without responsibility or power.

It is unfortunate that Modi’s BJP seems to be going down the same path.


Updated Date: Sep 06, 2017 06:49 AM

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