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29 October, 2017 11:18:08 AM

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Of pickles and airplanes

Sitharaman seems all set to leave her mark in what so far has remained an all male domain
Kumkum Chadha
Of pickles and airplanes
Nirmala Sitaraman

One picture that has gone viral on social media is that of India’s Defence Minister presiding over the Indian Air Force Commanders Conference. It was a serious three-day business, a bi-annual affair where the Defence Minister was briefed by the Air Chief about the status and developments in the Air Force and the Minister underlining the need for indigenization under the Make in India programme.  But what made news was neither the nitty gritty of the Conference nor the heavy content of the sum and substance of the air wing of the armed forces; what made news was a picture of the Defence Minister presiding over the Air Force Commanders Conference.

While it is usual business to have this Conference and the Defence Minister presiding over it, what was unusual was that a woman sat at the head of an all male conference. The lady in question is India’s Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. She created waves when she was named as the country’s Defence Minister by Prime Minister Narendra Modi: dubbed as a “rare honour” for a woman. Sitharaman is the second woman after Indira Gandhi to head the Defence Ministry and the first with a full time charge. Indira Gandhi had served as the defence minister in 1975 and again in 1980–82. However, Sitharaman is the first woman to hold the position full-time. What is interesting is that with the allocation of the Defence portfolio, Nirmala Sitharaman made more news than Indira Gandhi. As India’s Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi did not create waves as Defence Minister nor did the fact that a woman was India’s Defence Minister became a topic of discussion.

This may be because of two factors: first that the gender issue was not associated with Indira Gandhi and she was seen as a leader rather than a woman. Second she was Prime Minister first and Defence Minister later and therefore the second portfolio, though very important, remained a poor second. But not so in Sitharaman’s case because her gender and the fact that she is a woman overtook precedence on all else and it became a talking point of the entire exercise of the recent Cabinet reshuffle.

The current video notwithstanding what went viral was another too. It was shortly after her swearing in.

The video that then went viral on social media platforms showed the minister engaged in the preparation of avakai or mango pickle at her home in Hyderabad. The video was posted by her husband Parakala Prabhakar, who works with the state government.

Soon after her appointment, the video of Sitharaman making achaar, pickle, became a talking point. In the video she was seen sitting on the floor along with her mother, dressed in a simple salwaar kameez and preparing the mouth-watering delicacy. In fact Sitharaman, when she was spokesperson for the BJP, is on record stating that she often took leave from her duties to fly down to her home down-south specially to make pickle. Once she was sworn in the country’s Commerce Minister, she continued the tradition but whether she would do that as Defence Minister remains to be seen.

The videos did not stop here. Soon after she took over another trended on the social media: teaching Namaste to Chinese soldiers. Earlier in the month her interaction with Chinese soldiers on the border created news. In the video Sitharaman can be seen teaching the Chinese soldiers how to say "namaste".

“Do you know what ‘Namaste’ means?” Sitharaman was seen asking one of the PLA personnel who appeared confused and said “Namaste” while trying to explain the meaning.

At this point, some Indian soldiers tried to come to the assistance of their Chinese counterparts but Sitharaman asked them to let the PLA men find the meaning on their own. After some time, one of the soldiers, with a smile on his face, said “Namaste means nice to meet you.”

Then  Sitharaman asked “What would you say in Chinese?” “Ni hao,” responded the Chinese soldiers, triggering laughter on both sides.

Earlier, one of the Chinese soldiers was seen introducing his commander to  Sitharaman.

But these are interesting asides to the no-nonsense person Sitharaman is reputed to be. Known for her firmness and someone who smiles rarely, the articulate 58-year-old Sitharaman was an effective  spokesperson during the 2014 Modi campaign. She was elevated to a full fledged Union Minister in the recent reshuffle from holding independent charge of the Commerce and Industry ministry.

Her appointment was Defence Minister was delivered as the biggest surprise not because of her elevation to  Cabinet rank  but because of her portfolio and the fact that a woman had been picked to head the Defence Ministry.

This is easily another first in Modi’s regime his being the only government so far to handpick a woman to be a full fledged Defence Minister.

By virtue of her elevation she automatically is now part of the all-powerful cabinet committee on security. In the process, the first time MP leapfrogs over senior party colleagues in the cabinet.

The crucial ministry has a gender barrier and is by perception considered to be somewhat out of bounds of women. In fact women have had a tough road fighting for their space in the armed forces. It was only last year that women were allowed to take up combat roles in all sections of the armed forces. Till then India had resisted the move citing concerns iver women’s vulnerability and a big “if”over their physical and mental ability to cope with the stress on frontline deployment. It was former President Pranab Mukherjee who told a joint sitting of Parliament that the induction of women in the fighter streams of the armed forces was approved. Mukherjee had then said that Shakti means power and it being the manifestation of female energy defines our strength.

The Modi government went a step ahead and used the manifestation of the same Shakti and handed over the Defence Ministry and entrusted its charge to a woman. If Sonia Gandhi’s Congress government  had scored by giving  India its first woman President Pratibha Patil and again the first woman Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar during its reign. Modi bettered the score by letting a woman head the crucial ministry full time thus breaking the gender barrier in this sector.

India began recruiting women to non-medical positions in the armed forces in 1992, yet only 2.5% of its military’s million-plus personnel are women – most of them administrators, intelligence officers, doctors, nurses or dentists.

In October, the government took the first step towards bringing women into fighting roles and approved air force plans for female pilots to fly warplanes from June 2017 on a three-year experimental basis.

With Sitharaman at the helm women in the armed forces can expect a gender perspective to be inculcated in the armed forces and the glass ceiling broken with a woman heading the Ministry. This is not to say that women would have a field day but surely the gender barrier afflicting the armed forces is sure to collapse and there would be more openness and hopefully an end to the gender bias in the Defence Ministry. The fact that a single woman presided over an all male Commanders Conference and called the shots may be a small beginning but it says it all. Given Sitharaman’s competence, objectivity and plain speak she may not bend over backwards to be “pro women” but she sure will do the right thing and have an all inclusive rather than a woman out policy.  Not only that given her track record in the earlier ministry she has headed, Sitharaman is expected to do a good job as Defence Minister and make it a cutting edge ministry. Her predecessor, Manohar Parrikar was somewhat out of sorts here but Sitharaman seems all set to leave her mark in what so far has remained an all male domain and send a “we can do it” message loud and clear.

The writer is a senior Indian journalist, political commentator and columnist of The Independent. She can be reached at: (kumkum91@gmail.com) 

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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