NEW DELHI - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appointed a woman as a defense minister on Sunday as he reorganized his Cabinet in an effort to deliver on key pledges ahead of general elections due in a year and a half.
Nirmala Sitharaman will be the first woman to handle the important portfolio in 35 years, India’s former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had also held charge of the defense ministry.
Sitharaman, a 58-year-old former junior commerce minister, takes charge at a time when India’s tensions with both its northern neighbors, China and Pakistan, have been running high. She is credited with being tough, efficient and articulate.
She is the second woman to hold a top post in the Cabinet, Sushma Swaraj is the country’s foreign minister.
"There is a big message to all the countries that look up to India or look at India, saying, 'What is happening to women in India?,” Sitharaman told a television channel.
General elections in 2019
Modi has inducted nine new ministers as he focuses on improving governance during the remaining one and a half years of his term.
Although Modi retains his popularity, the economy has flagged to its slowest pace in three years and critics accuse him of failing to fulfill key promises made when he swept to power in 2014 pledging to create a “New India.”
“At the end of five years, people are going to ask these questions and he wants to put his best foot forward. He wants to lay down some base line in terms of performance,” says Harsh Pant at New Delhi’s Observer Research Foundation. Pointing out that the Prime Minister had created huge expectations, he said “the focus of the government is now on delivery.”
Political analysts say he is under pressure on make more progress on key initiatives he has taken to grow India’s economy and create millions of jobs for young people such as boosting the manufacturing sector and expanding infrastructure.
In a departure from the past, when party stalwarts were handed charge of ministries, Modi’s new team includes three former bureaucrats and a former top police official who have a reputation for administrative skills.
Following a series of rail crashes, the Rail Ministry was also handed over to a new minister, Piyush Goyal, who is credited with a good performance in the coal ministry.
Analysts say the next year would be crucial for Modi to ensure that the economy gets a boost and he maintains the reputation that swept him to power — that of a strong leader who would lead the country into the 21st century.
Leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party said Modi had chosen ministers with “passion, proficiency, professional and political acumen.”