NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday appointed Nirmala Sitharaman as defence minister in a cabinet reshuffle, in a bid to speed up development work as he comes under pressure to deliver on election promises in the final 20 months of his term.
A senior official in the president’s office said: “Nirmala Sitharaman will be handling defence portfolio”.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was holding defence portfolio earlier, while Sitharaman was trade minister.
Sitharaman, according to reports, has become only the second woman to become defence minister of India after Indira Gandhi, who later on became the prime minister.
"Somebody who has come from a small town, grown into the party with all the support of the leadership, and if given such responsibility, it just makes you feel sometimes that cosmic grace is there. Otherwise it is impossible," Sitharaman told reporters after taking oath, according to an Indian media outlet.
Economic growth slowed to its weakest pace in three years, data this week showed, and promises to boost manufacturing and create tens of thousands of jobs for one of the world’s youngest workforce have failed to take off.
Modi is also facing renewed criticism for his shock move to ban high-value bank notes last year after central bank data showed that 99 per cent of the abolished currency was back in the system.
Four of the nine new ministers in the Modi cabinet are retired bureaucrats including K J Alphons, known as Delhi’s demolition man for launching a crackdown on illegal structures in the capital despite facing intense political pressure.
Another is a former police commissioner and a diplomat, reflecting Modi’s faith in accomplished bureaucrats to deliver on his goals rather than politicians who are often untested in governance.
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He has often dealt directly with officials especially on his big initiatives such as developing 100 smart cities, bank accounts for millions of citizens and cleaning up the country, bypassing the ministers.
A senior bureaucrat in Modi’s office said the selection of new ministers was based on “passion, proficiency, professional and political acumen” to deliver on his vision of “a new India”.
Six ministers were dropped, some to take over party duties and others for poor performance, the official said.
There was no immediate word on whether Modi would appoint a new defence minister since Finance Minister Arun Jaitley is holding that charge and has said he would like to focus on the economic management.
Elections are due in 2019 and Modi remains the front runner.