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The stunning rise of Nirmala Sitharaman

Sitharaman's story marks one of the swiftest ascents in Indian politics — she had joined BJP only in 2006.

Updated: Jun 02, 2019, 10.14 AM IST
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For India Inc, Sitharaman is a familiar face. Several CEOs and senior executives of the private sector met her in various forums when she was in charge of commerce and industry.
It was not a routine crossing of the road. As Nirmala Sitharaman walked into the North Block on Friday, leaving behind her previous office — the Ministry of Defence — located on the other side of the Rajpath, she scripted history.

The 59-year-old is India’s first full-time woman finance minister. It was just in September 2017 that she was appointed the defence minister, marking one of the swiftest ascents in Indian politics — she had joined the BJP only in 2006.

After all, no woman politician in India, except for former prime minister Indira Gandhi had helmed these two critical ministries situated on either side of the ceremonial boulevard of New Delhi’s ultimate corridor of power — the Raisina Hills. And that’s a somewhat technical exception: Mrs Gandhi chose to keep the defence and finance portfolios with herself when she was prime minister.

For Sitharaman, handling the finance portfolio will be a full-time assignment, thus breaking yet another glass ceiling. A couple of hours after the portfolios of the second Modi government were announced on Friday afternoon, Sitharaman reached the corner room of the North Block’s first floor that houses the office of the Union finance minister, with all the attendant gravitas of helming a $2.9 trillion economy and the pervading halo of illustrious predecessors dating back seven decades. After taking charge and holding a brief interaction with six secretaries — five from finance and one from the Ministry of Corporate Affairs, the other ministry that she heads — she rushed towards the Prime Minister’s Office to attend the first cabinet meeting of the new government. The chairmen of the Central Board of Direct Taxes and Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs, among others, were also present at Sitharaman’s first informal meeting with key officials.

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Her junior minister, Anurag Thakur, was present when Sitharaman took charge. But the four-time MP from Himachal Pradesh’s Hamirpur constituency decided not to assume charge then, as he was advised by his astrologer to enter his office — located on the other end of the same floor — only after 6.30 pm. Thakur, 44, however, insisted that he would take charge only in the presence of his new boss, Sitharaman, which meant, the second function of the day in the ministry had to wait till the cabinet meeting got over.

By the time Sitharaman returned to the North Block and Thakur took charge as minister of state, two sets of economic figures started dominating news headlines, bringing to stark focus the intensity of the challenge facing Sitharaman. The country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate for the fourth quarter of 2018-19 slipped to 5.8% as against 6.6% in the third quarter. The latest spell of slowdown has a larger connotation. India’s Q4 GDP growth rate is now below China’s, which stood at 6.4%. India has now lost the tag of the fastest growing country in the world among major economies.

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Second, the government had confirmed during the day that the unemployment rate in 2017-18 indeed stood at 6.1%, identical to the data leaked in January this year that had showed India’s joblessness at a 45-year high. The government added that due to a change in methodology, the figures are not comparable to past figures.

Nonetheless, the numbers led to an inescapable conclusion: Sitharaman has one of the toughest jobs in the country right now. She has to calibrate and correct course even as she prepares for her first budget on July 5, the new Modi government’s first major headline economy event after returning to power with a stronger electoral mandate.

ET Magazine spoke to a dozen individuals — bureaucrats, corporate executives, teachers and politicians — who had either worked or closely interacted with Sitharaman, to piece together an approximation of the new finance minister’s personal and professional ethos. The consensus is that Prime Minister Modi has handpicked the right woman to steer the country’s economy at this phase of mild turbulence. (The offices of Sitharaman and Thakur did not respond to a request for comment.)

College Orator to Finance Minister
She is a postgraduate in economics from Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University ( JNU) and has an MPhil in international relations. She has worked at the London office of the professional services firm, PwC. The official website of the Rajya Sabha secretariat describes Sitharaman as an economist, and political and social worker. She has been a Rajya Sabha member since June 2014.

Born in Madurai in Tamil Nadu, she did her schooling in Chennai and graduated in economics from the all-woman Seethalakshmi Ramaswami College in Tiruchirappalli, where she was an “exemplary student”, according to her former teachers. “She would spend all her free time reading back volumes or economics books, or clearing doubts with teachers, and not just those teaching her subject,” says current principal Dr R Padmavathy. Though she was not active in politics then, Sitharaman was well-known in college for her oratorical skills. “She used to win first prize in every competition she took part in, whether in college or outside.” Sitharaman continues to maintain her ties with her alma mater, returning there as chief guest for events at least twice while she was the BJP spokesperson and Union commerce minister. “Though she was very busy as commerce minister, she spent over an hour-and-ahalf distributing prizes. She told the students then that they shouldn’t think of politics as something that should remain untouched, that we can go and clean it up,” says Dr Padmavathy. “Our founder established the college to empower women. His dream is now fulfilled through Nirmala Sitharaman,” she adds.

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Despite her in-laws being in politics — her mother-in-law was a Congress MLA in Andhra Pradesh and her father-in-law was a minister in the state — she initially refrained from jumping on the political bandwagon. After marrying Parakala Prabhakar, whom she first met in JNU, the couple moved to London only to return in 1991. They have a daughter.

Sitharaman’s first semi-political innings began when she became a member of the National Commission for Women in 2003 when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the prime minister. She formally joined the BJP in 2006, and became a party spokesperson soon after. In May 2014, she was appointed minister of state (independent charge) of commerce and industry. Three years later, she was elevated as the defence minister. For six months in 2014, she was also a junior minister to the then FM Arun Jaitley.

The civil servants who have worked with Sitharaman have many an anecdote to share. One official belonging to the Ministry of Defence says during her visit to a border post at Hylong in eastern Arunachal Pradesh last year, she was confronted by an army jawan complaining about the high cost of using satellite phones to connect with his family. Regular mobile services don’t work in most of the border areas. After returning to Delhi, Sitharaman immediately took up the matter with the telecom ministry, leading to a new guideline under which satellite phone tariffs in zero-connectivity zones were brought down to the level of normal mobile phone rates.

How quick and meticulous has she been in clearing files? Officials in the know say she is proactive and hands-on, and won’t hesitate to ask questions and return the file if the need arises. She would often say, “If I don’t know, I don’t know. There is no harm in learning,” says one of the officers associated with her in the defence ministry. The only allowance, the officer adds, is that she would give a reasonable deadline for reworking the file. “Her instructions are so clear and self-explanatory that even a robot can follow it," he adds. The officials asked not to be named, as they are not permitted to brief the media.

Sitharaman follows a disciplined life both at home and in office. She reaches her ministry only after reading the newspapers and finishing her party work. She never brought party-related papers to the defence ministry, the officer said. In the ministry, she would invariably meet the three defence chiefs first, if they were present in Delhi. During her tenure in the ministry, she had delegated a lot of power to the service headquarters and the three chiefs as well as to the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), a premier government agency that undertakes military research and development.

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She would remain in office till about 8:30 pm, which meant her assistants and close officials had to work overtime at least for two-three hours daily.

Sources in the party headquarters say that she would meet any member of Parliament when a session was on, irrespective of whether she is on roster duty or not. Even during her visits to the states, she is always ready to devote the maximum time for the cause of the party. "Whenever our team approaches her with issues related to Karnataka, she has been very receptive," says the state's former BJP minister and spokesperson, Suresh Kumar. He further adds how she ensured that a team of experts from Delhi flew down to Mysuru in 2017 to sensitise local traders and BJP karyakartas about the Goods and Services Tax (GST). She was then the minister of commerce and industry. In another party function, also held in Mysuru, she spent an entire day in tree planting, house visits and pamphlet distribution. For her second term in Rajya Sabha, since 2016, Sitharaman was elected from Karnataka. When she is in Bengaluru, she is known to stay with her maternal uncle who lives in the city's Jayanagar neighbourhood.

Familiar Face for India Inc
For India Inc, Sitharaman is a familiar face. Several CEOs and senior executives of the private sector met her in various forums when she was in charge of commerce and industry and then defence; the corporate sector has a key role to play in both.

Rashesh Shah, chairman of the financial services company Edelweiss, who had closely interacted with Sitharaman when she was the defence minister, says she is straightforward and decisive, and at the same time, humble. He recalls an incident when Sitharaman was the chief guest at a FICCI event. "When a defence minister visits, it is normally a big deal. But we were surprised that she was grounded, down-to-earth and she reached the venue on time," he adds.

V Sunil, an advertising executive who made the creatives for the Make in India campaign, recalls how she took a lot of interest in every stage of the project, launched with an objective of enhancing India's manufacturing capabilities. "She has clarity of thought and leads from the front," says Sunil, who made a Power-Point presentation to her in 2014 when she was at the helm of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry.

While she has largely stayed away from controversies, her visit to the flood-hit Kodagu district in Karnataka last year made headlines for all the wrong reasons, when she hit out at state minister and district-in-charge SR Mahesh over alleged changes to her itinerary. A furious Sitharaman was caught on camera saying: "Central minister follows the minister in charge here. Unbelievable!" Mahesh, a JD(S) MLA, who had then said people elected to the Upper House know nothing about the problems of common people, says that the matter is now closed. "She has just taken over as Union finance minister. We pray that she will be able to fulfil the agenda of development and also work for Karnataka," he says.

In Delhi, she may not have courted any controversy as yet even though she has been in politics for 13 years now. But she may have big challenges hereon, owing to the very public and high-stakes nature of finance ministry decisions.

She follows the formidable Jaitley in the ministry and will benefit from the PM's vote of confidence.

And when it comes to the critics whom her high office will inevitably attract, her straight-shooting style on display as party spokesperson could come in handy.

(With inputs from Malini Goyal and Indulekha Aravind
)

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