PM Narendra Modi on Sunday picked Nirmala Sitharaman as India’s first full-time woman defence minister, delivering the biggest surprise in a Cabinet recast that saw nine new ministers being sworn in, elevating the next generation of BJP leaders to key berths and inducting in-house technocrats with an eye on the 2019 polls.
The soft-spoken but articulate Sitharaman, 58, who was an influential BJP spokesperson during the 2014 Modi campaign, and was minister of state with independent charge for commerce, replaced the experienced Arun Jaitley, who continues as finance minister.
The JNU alumna — she is an MA in economics — came to know of her portfolio hours after taking oath as a Cabinet-rank minister.
With external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, Sitharaman will be the second woman member of the Cabinet Committee on Security, an elite ministerial group that deliberates on major strategic issues.
While Indira Gandhi held charge as defence minister as PM, Sitharaman is the first full-time woman occupant of the South Block perch, breaching an enduring glass ceiling as she assumes responsibility of a male-dominated military where demands for allowing women in combat roles are gaining traction. “I will look at the issue (of women in combat roles) with an open mind,” she said soon after the portfolios were announced.
Her record in the commerce ministry was attacked by Congress, which pointed to low exports, but the government highlighted India being the top destination for greenfield foreign direct investment (FDI) and Sitharaman’s record in handling tough multilateral trade negotiations.
The Cabinet changes are seen to reflect Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah’s assessment of performance and accountability of the ministerial team.
PM bid to pace up growth in key areas
Among the younger leaders, Piyush Goyal takes charge of railways after several accidents, including the recent derailment of Utkal Express, dented the government’s record in the rail sector.
Nine new ministers brought into the government indicate the PM’s priorities, as he looks to accelerate delivery in areas with a significant bearing on the economy and jobs like housing, urban planning, river cleanup and transport, power and renewable energy and tourism along with pushing reforms in defence and railways.
Former DDA “demolition man” Alphons Kannanthanam will be in charge of tourism while former foreign service hand Hardeep Puri will be responsible for housing and urban affairs.
Both are former civil servants and currently not MPs. R K Singh, a former home secretary, has been given the important portfolio of power and renewables.
Goyal, who has been BJP treasurer, is an experienced party hand, being part of campaign planning at the national level. A CA by training, he is seen as an instinctive reformer who keeps a close eye on outcomes and costs and his main task will be to get the factious railway bureaucracy to pull in one direction.
Seen as a possible CM face for BJP in Odisha, oil minister Dharmendra Pradhanhas delivered on schemes like Pahal and Ujjwala — the latter viewed as a factor that worked with poor households receiving cooking gas in the UP elections. He now also has the charge of skill development.
Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi has been elevated as cabinet minister and continues to hold charge of MoS parliamentary affairs and independent charge of minority affairs.
The chopping and changing that saw six ministers resign ahead of the reshuffle also saw downsizing of senior leader Uma Bharati, who has shed the water resources and Ganga rejuvenation portfolio and has been moved to sanitation.
Though the portfolio is important in terms of the prominence given to Swachh Bharat, the ministry is seen to be run by officials under the PMO’s guidance.
Delhi leader Vijay Goel lost independent charge of sports, a comment on his tendency to get involved in the state party’s affairs and factional politics.