Nirmala Sitharaman takes charge as defence minister, spells out focus
Indian Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman speaks during an event at the Defence Research and Development Organisation in New Delhi on September 7, 2017. Nirmala Sitharaman took over September 7 as India's first full-time female defence minister. Pic/ AFP


Newly-appointed Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Thursday said her priority areas would be military preparedness, defence indigenisation, resolving
long-pending issues and the welfare of soldiers. Sitharaman, 55, India's first full-time woman defence minister, took charge of the key ministry in the presence of her predecessor Arun Jaitley. Indira Gandhi, as prime minister, had also held the portfolio.

A priest conducted prayers in the defence minister's chamber before Sitharaman assumed charge. Her parents were present on the occasion. "My priority will definitely be armed forces' preparedness. It is important that Indian armed forces receive all attention in terms of giving them every necessary endowment and equipment," Sitharaman, who was commerce minister earlier, told reporters.

The armed forces have been pressing for enhancing overall capabilities in the face of aggressive posturing by China on the borders and the unhindered proxy war by Pakistan. She said resolving long-pending issues in consultation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Union Cabinet and ensuring effective implementation of the 'Make in India' initiative would also be a focus area.

The defence minister said there was need for "big play" of the Make in India initiative in overall defence capability and noted that it was very important for the
government. "We will ensure that it's given full play for defence production," she said. Reaching out to armed forces personnel, Sitharaman said soldiers perform their duties at the "toughest borders" and it would be her endeavour to ensure their welfare as well as of their families.

They should remain absolutely sure that their interests will be protected, Sitharaman said. Providing the soldiers with the best equipment available would be another priority. Sitharaman has now become member of the crucial Cabinet Committee on Security -- the members include the prime minister, home minister, external affairs minister and the finance minister.

As defence minister, Sitharaman faces several challenges, including strengthening combat capabilities of the Army, Navy and the Air Force due to the changing regional security matrix and geo-political dynamics. Besides, military modernisation programmes have been delayed due to administrative hurdles amongst other reasons.

The government has been focusing on domestic defence production and Sitharaman will also have to carry forward a number of big-ticket reform initiatives, including implementing the ambitious "strategic partnership" model with several countries like the United States and Russia.

Under the new model, select Indian private firms will be roped in to build military platforms like submarines and fighter jets in India in partnership with foreign defence majors. Finance Minister Jaitley was handling the defence ministry after Manohar Parrikar quit to become the Goa's chief minister in March.

In his capacity as defence minister, Jaitley went to Japan on Sunday, the day Modi effected the reshuffle of his cabinet, to represent India at a bilateral defence dialogue. Jaitley had said he was going to Japan as there were logistical issues for Sitharaman to travel to Japan. Officials had said Sitharaman would take charge of the ministry after Jaitley returned from Japan.