The Message From India's 2 Female Ministers of Defence
NEW DELHI: The media, always over eager like the proverbial beaver (sorry could not resist that comparison), has been screaming---one presumes in joy---about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to bring in former Jawaharlal Nehru University graduate Nirmala Sitharaman as the Union Defence Minister. For a news industry obsessed with firsts, her appointment comes as a big chew-able, with of course mention that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi held this post but then only as additional charge.
Well being from the media fraternity would have certainly liked to jump in excitement with the rest of my colleagues, particularly television, except that experience in the field set some alarm bells ringing, and hence one felt the need to check out some facts.
And yes most unsuprisingly, Indira Gandhi although twice Prime Minister of India, held the Defence portfolio in 1975 when she had in the ‘macho nationalist’ leader avatar imposed Emergency in the country. She was at the peak of her dictatorial power at the time, and of course held additional charge to send home the message that she was not just the Iron Lady for internal dissenters, but also for external forces who might be interested in weakening India. And let there be no mistake she was no less than any ‘man’. The words used, the arguments, the entire message of the Emergency fed into the projection of Indira Gandhi as India’s Defence Minister.
Indira Gandhi used the position not to bring down the defence budget, not to send out a message that a woman is not like a man, that she can be strong in her compassion and her desire for democracy and peace, but to emphasise that she was indeed masculinity personified in a sari. There is enough on the table of those days for the interested readers to obtain the corresponding facts for themselves.
So on to Ms Sitharaman. A BJP leader who emerged as a spokesperson, and rose to fame for her hard lines, her stiff angry voice, her intelligence of course (after all she was from JNU!) that was visible in her ability to counter arguments on television night after night. When she first came on to the scene she was a regular guest at News X where this reporter was then, as other TV channels were looking for BJP ‘stars’ that she was not at that time. She was softer spoken then, very pleasant actually, and very polite in her counter arguments. She was certainly not anyone’s acolyte, in fact brought a certain sense to the debate.
Slowly Sitharaman changed, as do many regulars---includings activists and journalists who appear as regulars on television to get the eyeballs. She was hard hitting, often nasty, and became a favourite with the bigger media channels. Her defence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is almost legendary, her one liners acclaimed within the party. She rose to become Minister, was in Commerce doing as she was bid, and established a reputation as a leader who would brook no nonsense from the bureaucrats under her. Many were at the receiving end of a whiplash, and popularity certainly did not define Sitharaman’s stint in this Ministry. However, she followed directions from the Prime Ministers Office to the letter, and as the reports go, is hardworking, obedient and an unflinching Modi loyalist.
Defence is of course, unexpected. But not when one weighs this with the RSS/BJP’s vision of defence and the woman, very much on the same lines as Indira Gandhi the dictator. The woman in the RSS is masculine, she does not speak for gender but for the party, she does not speak for rights but for hard militaristic ideology, she is trained in arms, she speaks a language that is not compassionate but tough, she does not bring nuances into nationalism but accepts the militaristic definitions, she supports violence and never sheds a tear for the women if they are from the ‘opposing’ side, she believes in war not peace, she is an ideological robot who suppresses her femininity for the patriarchal militaristic mode.
Women of all political parties were at one point very active in demanding 33 per cent reservation in all the legislatures, including Parliament. The argument made by then CPI leader Geeta Mukherjee, a woman who fought many a battle since independence, was that women bring a new discourse, raise issues that are otherwise neglected, bring in a certain sobriety, and over and above others being the worst sufferers themselves change the narrative from war to peace. The Defence budget, she told this writer in one interview, would be impacted as a result with the money being reduced and channelised instead into the far more important social sectors of health, education etc.
This is not to say that women are different, it is not also to say that women are weak. It is actually to underline the fact that being one of the most marginalised community in the world women have suffered through the ages, particularly in war and conflict. And hence have developed an almost genetic affinity for peace that she expected to be reflected through the legislatures.
Sitharaman is Defence Minister for entirely the opposite reasons. She is sufficiently male by the RSS/BJP guage to be placed in this position; she is sufficiently loyal by the Modi/Amit Shah meter to be elevated to a top ministry; she is a hard task master and can be expected to follow instructions from the top---unlike the more laid back Manohar Parrikar---to the letter. And she has the affinity for macho nationalism that of course makes her ideal. Only a fool can imagine Sitharaman appearing on television to say that while the country’s defence is top most priority, she would like to see a step towards peace. Instead the Minister threatening war would be far more in sync with her own image, as well as that of the party and government she represents.
A woman as Defence Minister is thus, meaningless. As for reasons such a shift in Indian politics can be only for one of the following two reasons:
one, to indicate a shift in Defence policy, from the hard war zone to peace as a matter of policy, where health, education become centre stage for a country that so desperately needs it;
Or two, to further endorse the militaristic nature of the ruling party and its ideological mentor that is raising women battalions, training civilian women in the use of arms, and encouraging those women leaders whose voices are as hard and as shrill as the male cadres. And of course to grab the headlines that PM Modi has an innate and wonderful sense for.
Clearly it is not the first. A newspaper headline reportng the appointment ran ‘smashes India’s glass ceiling’. No, not at all. The appointment has merely strengthened the celing with toughened glass!