By anointing Nirmala Sitararaman as the first woman Cabinet Minister in India’s defence ministry, Mr Modi has not only removed the glass ceiling in the Conservative bastion of South Block, he has also stumped all the journalists, who proclaim about their deep links in the government. More importantly it sends a clear message that BJP as a party does not make women also-rans. On the contrary, Modi’s present initiative reminds one of Ben-Gurion, the first Israeli PM, who chose Gold Meir as a Minister. Asked about this move in a conservative country like Israel, Gurien had quipped :’She is the only man in my government.’ No wonder, Modi shares such a fantastic rapport with the Jews!
Women becoming Defence minister is not uncommon in Europe and Scandinavian countries. Presently, there are 15women who hold the portfolio of defence ministers in the world, including important countries like France, Germany and Italy. Interestingly, the first woman to become a defence minister in the world was Sirimavo Bandarnayke, in 1960,when her husband was the PM.Asia has shown the way in this regard.
Ms Sitaraman’s task is really cut out, as she has to contend with many issues, particularly male chauvinist of the army to agree for women to be given Permanent Commission. While both Navy and Airforce have already done it, Army is still dragging its feet. The other contentious area is putting women officers in a combat role. Many countries are doing this, which includes Israel. There is needless intransigence on this, which should be transcended. If women IPS officers like Kiran Bedi can handle sword wielding Nirankaris in the streets of Delhi in the 1980s, the Services must eschew their squeamishness and break this last last mile hurdle in the professional challenge for a women. Nirmala’s presence at the helm would be both totemic and talismanic.
Nirmala has been one of our best Commerce Ministers by unveiling an export friendly policy last year. She also tried to clear the cobwebs in the functioning of the Export promotion zones and ushering a very FDI friendly policy mosaic. Dismantling the FIPB has been one of her major contribution to encourage more foreign investment in to India, particularly in the infrastructure sector.
Her task is now cut out how to increase the FDI ceiling in the defence ministry from 49% to more than 50%.With the present limit, no major foreign manufacturer is keen to bring in key technology and forge long term partnerships with Indian companies. The Make in India campaign has practically made no inroads in our defence production sector which is dominated by inefficient public sector undertakings. Despite several recommendations by past committees like Vijoy Kelkar , Public Private Partnership has not taken off. Ms Sitaraman needs to rejuvenate the PPP model and operationalise the strategic partnership model advocated by Dhirendra Singh Committee. This model would ensure that foreign defence manufactures do not have to necessarily transfer technology and partner to defence PSUs like HAL and MDL only, but with major private sector players like the Tatas, L&T, M&M, who feel peeved for not being provided a level playing field in defence manufacturing. We still depend 70% of our critical defence needs on imports. Though a Self Reliance Committee under Dr Kalam had given a road map in 1995 how to improve our indigenisation to 70% by 2005, like many reports and promises, it has been mothballed. With privatisation in the air and Sitaraman as a major Mascot, the architecture of partnership model for production of state of art platforms like fighters, frigates and howitzers would get a real kick-start.
Ms Sitaraman has a known predilection for increased partnership with USA. In this she will have to contend with the sensitivity of contending with the Russians, as 80% of our defence inventory is from that source. She will have to do a fine balancing act between pragmatism and friendship of the past with trusted partners.
Defence sector has the unenviable reputation of infernal secrecy and translucent sleaze coupled with the strategic secrecy it has to maintain. Self sufficiency in critical technology is a critical marker, as the country cannot be held hostage by any foreign power in the event of an external aggression. While the defence services have a redoubtable record in low intensity conflicts and in ensuring our territorial integrity, its for the Defence Minister to provide the critical coordination between a fairly vocal but professional uniformed service, a large behometh of unwieldy public sector undertakings and ordnance factories, a dilatory defence research organisation and an intransigent civil service. Sitaraman has to usher a more gender sensitive which is better equipped to face the myriad challenges that constantly confront it. Her resolute will and sincerity would be truly tested.
(The author served in the defence ministry as a Joint Secretary. The views are personal.)