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Home >Budget 2019 >News >Slowdown, global tensions make it a daunting task for Nirmala Sitharaman

New Delhi: Whether defending her party in the media or the government over graft charges, Nirmala Sitharaman is no stranger to taking up tough challenges. On 5 July, as she rises to present the Union budget, Sitharaman, only the second woman to hold the post of Union finance minister, will be arguably facing the toughest challenge in her political career.

With economic growth slumping to a five-year low of 5.8% in the quarter ended 31 March, joblessness at a 45-year high and farm incomes declining, Sitharaman has been tasked with addressing the economic challenges in her first Union budget, about a month after taking charge of the crucial ministry.

“She has taken over at a very challenging time where wiggle room is very little and the government is committed to bringing down the fiscal deficit. It is a situation where you cannot blow up money and lose the glide path to attaining your fiscal deficit target and you need to ensure growth. It’s not an easy one to resolve," said Naina Lal Kidwai, chairperson of Advent Private Equity India Advisory Board. “It will be a challenging budget to present and I am sure she will do a great job within these bounds."

Sitharaman faces a far more difficult task than her predecessor Arun Jaitley because of the slowdown in the global economy, rising protectionism around the world and volatile crude oil prices. Her first budget is expected to look at ways to revive private investment and consumption to bring India back to a faster growth trajectory.

Fiscal slippages, the liquidity crisis in the non-banking sector and an unemployment rate that hit a 45-year high of 6.1% in 2017-18 are also issues she will need to address on a war footing.

During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first term in office, Sitharaman held the portfolio of commerce and industry minister (independent charge) for over three years, after which she was appointed the defence minister. As defence minister, she was also the foremost spokesperson of the government, rebutting corruption allegations against Modi.

Sitharaman currently also holds the charge of corporate affairs minister, a division that administers law regulating corporate behaviour.

The 59-year-old Rajya Sabha MP from Karnataka joined BJP in 2008, serving as the party spokesperson during 2010-14. She graduated from Seethalakshmi Ramaswami College in Tiruchirappalli and went on to get her master’s degree in economics from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. She also worked at PricewaterhouseCoopers in London and briefly at BBC World Services.

Sitharaman’s appointment as finance minister comes as women are breaking the glass ceiling in politics. The newly elected 17th Lok Sabha has 78 women MPs, the highest since independence.

Former prime minister Indira Gandhi was the first woman to become the finance minister of the country, although she held it as an additional charge during 1970-71.

According to PRS Legislative Research, out of the 716 women candidates who contested the general election, 78 were elected to the Lok Sabha, more than the 62 elected in 2014.

Modi recently said it is the first time that the number of women voters is on a par with that of male voters, compared to the past elections when men had generally outnumbered women by at least 9 percentage points. “This is Indian democracy’s bright spot," he said in the Rajya Sabha.

While the symbolism of her appointment cannot be missed, it also reflects Modi’s strong confidence in Sitharaman’s capability, according to Manisha Priyam, a New Delhi-based political analyst.

“No one knew her political background and then she got into the cabinet, first as defence minister, which was a big thing, and now as finance minister. It is certainly symbolic. It must have been some elements of her performance that have seen her entry and elevation not just in the party but also the government. It speaks volumes about her performance and her capacity," said Priyam.

Pretika Khanna contributed to this story.

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