Daunting to-do list for India's new defence minister

Modernising military, bureaucratic lethargy, tensions with neighbours among challenges


NEW DELHI • Ms Nirmala Sitharaman, who was appointed as India's first woman defence minister in 35 years on Sunday, will have to deliver on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's goal of modernising the nation's Soviet-era military equipment as border tensions with neighbours China and Pakistan simmer.

Most recently Minister for Commerce and Industry, Ms Sitharaman was India's main negotiator at global trade talks. She succeeds Finance Minister Arun Jaitley who relinquished his additional charge of the key ministry.

Prior to her ministerial stint, she was a prominent spokesman for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party during Mr Modi's successful election campaign in 2014.

Under Ms Sitharaman, export growth has slowed while free trade talks with key partners have stalled.

In her new role, she will have to accelerate Mr Modi's goal of spending as much as US$250 billion (S$339 billion) by 2025 on defence hardware, including jet planes, naval ships and drones as bigger neighbour China flexes its military muscle in the region. Her Commerce Ministry duties also gave her oversight of Mr Modi's flagship "Make In India" programme aimed at boosting domestic manufacturing, an initiative that included a significant defence focus.

"Sitharaman's elevation to defence is a bit of a surprise," said Mr Shailesh Kumar, a senior Asia analyst with the Eurasia Group risk consultancy. "Her selection is likely aimed at leveraging her experience in the Commerce Ministry to make defence as much about economics as security."

While she does not have the political heft of her predecessors, including former president Pranab Mukherjee and former prime minister Indira Gandhi, she is known as a hard-working member of Mr Modi's team and shares a good rapport with the Premier.


Her biggest challenge will come from right-sizing the force structure, procedural hindrances in defence procurement and issues related to self-reliance in defence production.

DIRECTOR DEBA RANJAN MOHANTY, at New Delhi-based defence research organisation Indike Analytics, on Ms Nirmala Sitharaman (left), India's new Defence Minister.

Ms Sitharaman takes over amid increased tensions with Pakistan and China, as well as active insurgencies in India's east, north-east and in the disputed region of Kashmir. India and China last Monday agreed to end a months-long military stand-off in the Himalayas, with both sides seeking to portray the withdrawal as a victory.

Ms Sitharaman also inherits a bureaucratic ministry known for equipment procurement delays, oversight of around 1.4 million active armed forces personnel and a politically sensitive portfolio that straddles everything from veterans' pension issues to national security challenges.

"Her biggest challenge will come from right-sizing the force structure, procedural hindrances in defence procurement and issues related to self-reliance in defence production," according to the director of defence research organisation Indike Analytics, Deba Ranjan Mohanty.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2017, with the headline 'Daunting to-do list for India's new defence minister'. Print Edition | Subscribe