Newly appointed Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman comes from a tradition where rebellions are quiet and not emphatic. Her mother’s part of the family is from Thiruvangad in Tamil Nadu. They are Tamil Iyengar Brahmins, who moved from the banks of the Cauvery to Madurai. As her father was with the Indian Railways in a transferable job, she grew up with relatives in Chennai and later Tiruchi, where she completed graduation. Education was prized and learning was put above everything else in the family.
The exposure to politics (and the rebellion) happened at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). There she did an MA in economics, living in Godavari hostel with a clutch of friends who were Free Thinkers (the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad wasn’t even a twinkle in anyone’s eyes back then). She campaigned vigorously for Nalini Ranjan Mohanty for president — the election was a benchmark of sorts for politics in JNU — in the students’ union elections in 1982. He won the election, defeating the Students Federation of India, which seemed unbeatable during that time.
Sitharaman was one of the students who was in a posse of Free Thinkers when it gheraoed the Vice-Chancellor’s office in protest against the sealing of a student’s room. Several students were locked up in Tihar jail. Many students mingled with fellow students who had come to see them and walked out of the jail, establishing a record of sorts in “jailbreaks”.
It was in JNU that Sitharaman met her husband, Prabhakar Parakala, also committed to politics, but of a different kind. Parkala’s father, Seshavataram Parakala, was a well-known Congress politician and an associate of P V Narasimha Rao. Sitharaman and he got married and she registered for a PhD dissertation (on India-Europe textile trade in the GATT framework) which she never completed because Prabhakar got a scholarship for a PhD at the London School of Economics and she couldn’t appear for the viva.
She signed up to be a salesgirl at Habitat, a home décor store in London’s Regent Street, where she won a bottle of Moët & Chandon champagne that winter because she made record Christmas sales. That was a short-lived pursuit. She moved on to the research division of PricewaterhouseCoopers.
But soon after, a baby was on the way and the duo returned to India in 1991.
She set up a school in Hyderabad – a kind of alternative education set up (now given on lease). She came in touch with Sushma Swaraj and much later, was appointed to the National Commission for Women (2003-05). She joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2006. When the BJP adopted 33 per cent reservation structure for women throughout the party, she was invited to join the National Executive Council. She was appointed national spokesperson in 2010 and moved from Hyderabad to Delhi.
Swaraj and Sitharaman had a historic falling out on Telangana. In February 2014, Sitharaman tweeted: “If only Sushma had stood for Seemaandhra in Lok Sabha just like Venkaiah & Jaitley did today”. To this, Swaraj responded: “With spokespersons like @nsitharaman, u don’t need enemies”. Both the tweets were deleted but the damage was done. It was Swaraj who bitterly opposed Sitharaman’s entry in the Rajya Sabha.
Jaitley took her under his wing and in 2014 she became the commerce minister. Then the question came of entering Parliament. Naidu nixed backing her candidature from Andhra Pradesh. She was finally elected from Karnataka.
As defence minister, Sitharaman will sit in the Cabinet Committee on Security, in the company of Jaitley and Swaraj (and Rajnath Singh). She will have to match up to the stature of politicians like A K Antony, George Fernandes and Jagjivan Ram and the authority and political muscle they brought with them to the job.