Nirmala Sitharaman has broken through the glass ceiling—again—as she takes charge as India’s new finance minister.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday named Sitharaman to replace the ailing Arun Jaitley, who chose to bow out of the cabinet citing ill health.
The appointment is being seen as a big promotion for the affable Sitharaman, a former spokesperson for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), just over a decade after she entered politics.
Sitharaman is the first woman to hold the crucial finance portfolio. The only other time the ministry was held by a woman was between 1969 and 1970 when the then prime minister Indira Gandhi was in charge.
But this is not the first time that Sitharaman has vaulted to a position on Raisina Hill that had been held only by men. In September 2017, she became the first woman defence minister (with the exception, again, of Gandhi who had held the defence portfolio while being prime minister), after her predecessor Manohar Parrikar moved to take over the chief ministership of Goa.
Before holding charge of the defence ministry, Sitharaman was the commerce and industry minister between May 2014 and September 2017.
Sitharaman has an M.Phil from the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. It was there that she met Parakala Prabhakar, a Telugu Brahmin whom she later married. Prabhakar served as the communications adviser to former Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu till 2018.
Incidentally, apart from the newly appointed foreign minister Subramanyam Jaishankar, Sitharaman is the only other Tamil minister in Modi’s new cabinet. Coincidentally, both studied at the JNU.
Moreover, just like Jaishankar, Sitharaman did not contest the Lok Sabha elections and still managed to make it to the top four in the new Modi cabinet.
As finance and external affairs ministers, the duo have trumped other BJP stalwarts including Nitin Gadkari and Piyush Goyal, who were widely expected to be in charge of the top four portfolios.
Sitharaman’s rise in the BJP has been nothing short of meteoric. She began her political career with the party in 2006 and became a party spokesperson in 2010, appearing at press conferences and in TV studios to defend her party while it was in opposition during the time the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance government was in office.
Before joining the BJP, Sitharaman reportedly began her working life in London around 1990, as a salesgirl at Habitat, a decor store on the city’s famous Regent Street, but soon moved to the research division of PricewaterhouseCoopers, according to multiple media reports.
But soon, Sitharaman and her husband returned to Hyderabad, where she reportedly set up a school. In subsequent years, she would get in touch with senior BJP leader Sushma Swaraj and went on to join the party’s National Executive Council. Swaraj and Sitharaman, however, had a public falling out and a verbal spat on Twitter in 2014 over the issue of Telangana.
As defence minister, Sitharaman would often find herself defending the multi-billion-dollar deal to acquire 36 Rafale fighter jets from the French defence major Dassault, as the opposition, led by Congress president Rahul Gandhi, accused the prime minister of corruption and of helping businessman Anil Ambani, whose company would benefit from the offsets contracts arising out of the government-to-government pact.
It was perhaps Sitharaman’s spirited defence of her government and the prime minister in the face of mounting opposition pressure that cemented her position at the top.
As finance minister, her first onerous task will be to present the union budget, where she will have to do a smart juggling act in managing the demands of various interest groups while treading a tough path to keep India’s precarious fiscal math in order.