Female Finance Minister Faces Long To-Do List

India's economic policymaking has been hampered by personnel problems.

Nirmala Sitharaman’s rise from salesperson at Habitat, to analyst at PwC, to India’s first full-timefemale finance minister is a story of grit and conviction. The 59-year-old second-term member of Parliament’s upper house is moving up from a role in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first government as the nation’s second female defense minister (after Indira Gandhi).

She’ll need all the grit she can muster.

After his landslide win in this year’s lower-house elections, her boss was immediately thrown into a search for a new finance chief. Arun Jaitley, who served during Modi’s first term, opted out due to health reasons. Sitharaman must find a way to pull India’s economy out of a slump, restore GDP growth beyond 8%, tackle joblessness and counter trade pressures brought by US President Donald Trump. And those are just the biggest headline challenges.

Born into a middle-class family in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, Sitharaman acquired a reputation for hard work as she climbed the ranks of the right-wing, ultranationalist ruling coalition, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), rising to become chief spokesperson of the NDA’s dominant member, the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Now she’s charged, despite a lack of political consensus, with implementing market-oriented economic reforms over the next five years, including labor-market restructuring and opening up the land market to private domestic and foreign investors. But her priority has been identified as selling off government holdings in key blue-chip, state-run enterprises and large public-sector banks. At the same time, Sitharaman is expected to devise a plan to pull more than 660 million people out of rural and agrarian economies while pursuing financial-sector and market reforms to please global investors.