Challenges for Sitharaman, India's first full-time woman finance minister

Newly appointed Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman takes charge at South Block, in New Delhi | PTI
The new Narendra Modi government at the Centre may be slightly short on women's representation in the Council of Ministers compared to the last tenure, but the fact that Nirmala Sitharaman is fifth in the ranking of ministers and has been entrusted with the Ministry of Finance, goes to show that her stature has risen quietly within the BJP. Both as defence and finance minister, she has been projected as the tough woman face of the Modi government. 

If Smriti Irani took on Congress president Rahul Gandhi in the electoral battle, it was Sitharaman who took the barbs both in and outside Parliament when the Rafale controversy erupted. For her, it would just be a cross over from the South to the North Block of Raisina Hill. 

Unlike most of her Cabinet colleagues, Sitharaman stands apart in that she found her political bearings in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), an academic institution maligned by many members of the ruling party for its Leftist leanings. “She’s a typical JNU type,” said a senior official in a ministry she has worked earlier. Given an option between liberalising sectors and farmers’ welfare, she would choose the latter, he pointed out. Another senior bureaucrat said she would be ‘’defensive’’ with "priority for the domestic industry", and unlikely to be ‘’a risk taker".

Recalling an instance in the department of commerce, he said once an official-in-charge left for an overseas trip at a time when a tobacco farmer committed suicide. "She reprimanded him for the travel, saying how he could travel when a farmer had died." 

The general view is she keeps to business and is not over-friendly. "She hardly minced words even when it came to dealing with ministers of other countries when she was in the commerce ministry,’’ another official said, adding, even if that went against India’s interest. She was quite unlike her predecessor Anand Sharma, commerce minister in the UPA, according to the official. She doesn’t like to stay late for informal dinners, unlike Sharma, who loves to party.  

In defence ministry, issues such as procurement follow a hierarchy. “In one case, I differed with her but in hindsight, she was correct," said an official who worked closely with her in defence ministry. 

Sitharaman’s candidature for the Ministry of Finance had the backing of both the prime minister himself and Arun Jaitley. Though in 2014, she started off as a junior minister in finance and corporate affairs, she will now oversee the largest ministry, in terms of both the number of departments and the power to allot money. 

On Friday when she took charge as FM, replacing her mentor Jaitley, this JNU alumnus preferred to have only an informal chat with mediapersons. She faces a dual challenge – pump priming a flagging economy with government expenditure, and fund schemes like PM Kisan and Ujjwala to boost consumption. At the same time, she has to maintain fiscal discipline.    

Last year, Sitharaman had tweeted that she was reading former US Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker’s book, Keeping at it: The Quest for Sound Money and Good Government. 

Maybe, there’s good advice in it for the new finance minister.