As India’s first female Defence Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman wields control over one of the largest armies in the world with disarming diplomacy and quiet grit. The thing about Nirmala Sitharaman is that she hardly ever gets agitated, angry or belligerent. It’s a rare quality to keep calm as a political spokesperson on Indian news television and perhaps, it’s this quality that made her stand out when she first burst onto the scene in 2010, when she was announced as the spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which she had joined in 2006. Narendra Modi was then Chief Minister of Gujarat, and even as he was about to begin his journey towards the centre of power in the capital, Sitharaman was already on track to making history as India’s first full-time woman Defence Minister. And her poise and composure would become key qualities she’d need to lead one of the largest armed forces in the world.
Photograph courtesy: Tarun Khiwal
The 59-year-old had only been in politics for a decade, and had risen fast. She was one of the spokespersons that Modi picked for his council of ministers when he became Prime Minister in 2014; in September 2017, she was already being promoted to Cabinet rank. Her exact portfolio hadn’t been revealed just yet. “I was just doing interviews after being sworn in, when I received a call from the Cabinet Secretary,” recalls Sitharaman, of the time she got the most important job of her life.
“They told me they wanted to meet me before going public with the news, and I said fine. As soon as I put the phone down, Jaitleyji [Arun Jaitley], who was then the Defence Minister (as well as the Finance Minister) called and asked me to come to his house,” she tells us in her office in Raisina Hill, New Delhi. Before she meets us, she’s been in a marathon meeting with the three service chiefs. It’s difficult to enter the room without being awed by the historic decisions that would have taken place there. There is a photo of General Jagjit Singh Aurora, the commanding General Officer in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, looking on as Pakistan’s General AAK Niazi, who was in charge of the eastern command, signs the Document of Surrender. And this is just one of the several exhibits that surround those who walk into her anteroom today.
When Sitharaman reached Jaitley’s house, the Defence Secretary was already there. Then, the Cabinet Secretary, the top-most bureaucrat, came on the phone and spoke with her. Next, he exchanged a few short words with Jaitley, who in turn put down the phone, faced her, and said, “You’ve been given Defence.”
Sitharaman slowly processed those words. This meant that the top decision-making body in the country, the Cabinet Committee on Security, with five members including the Prime Minister, now had two women: veteran BJP minister Sushma Swaraj, and her. Prime Minister Modi was on his way to the BRICS summit in China, so he had asked Jaitley to convey the news. But nothing’s without any complications in the government.
“Jaitleyji told me that the next day was the Strategic Defence Dialogue in Japan and the PM wanted me to go as Defence Minister. But it was a Sunday, and the embassy wouldn’t be able to process the visa unless they got them to open it up.” She was asked whether she wanted to go or if she preferred to wait for the PM to come back and then take on the job, since there couldn’t be two defence ministers operating at the same time; one abroad and one back home. “I told him I could wait,” says Sitharaman.