Will India’s 81-year-old central bank finally get a woman governor?

Climbing the ranks.
Climbing the ranks.
Image: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
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India’s 81-year-old central bank has never had a woman in charge, but that could soon change.

The Narendra Modi government is in the process of finding a successor to Raghuram Rajan, the country’s central banker, and four names have made it to the final shortlist, according to Reuters. There’s the current RBI deputy governor Urjit Patel, former deputy governors Rakesh Mohan and Subir Gokarn, and the only woman on the list—Arundhati Bhattacharya, chairperson of the State Bank of India (SBI).

The search began last week after Rajan announced on June 18 that he won’t be seeking a second term.

If chosen, Bhattacharya will join the small cohort of woman central bankers around the world, which includes the US Fed chief, Janet Yellen, and Russia’s Elvira Nabiullina.

India has had many women heading private banks, but RBI has never had one at the helm. The central bank has, however, had woman deputy governors since MJ Udeshi’s appointment in 2003.

Officer to top boss

The 60-year-old Bhattacharya became SBI’s first woman chairperson in 2013. A post-graduate in arts from Jadavpur University in Kolkata, Bhattacharya joined SBI in 1977. During her stint at the state-owned lender, she worked across verticals, including human resources and investment banking, and was also posted at the bank’s New York branch.

Bhattacharya is at the 25th spot—ahead of Queen Elizabeth II and Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi—in the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women ranking for 2016 by Forbes Magazine. “Bhattacharya is facing her most challenging test yet with the State Bank of India, the country’s biggest,” the magazine said in a short write-up.

As SBI chief, one of the highlights of her career was the bank’s crackdown on Vijay Mallya’s Kingfisher Airlines, which owes India’s state-owned banks some $1.3 billion. SBI was one of the first banks to label Mallya a “wilful defaulter.” ”The days of promoters gaming the banking system are over,” she said in February this year, hinting at Mallya.

There’s just one glitch though. The government may be considering extending her term as SBI chairperson for one more year. Her current tenure ends in September this year. An extension will mean she’ll have to give up dreams of occupying the RBI’s corner office, at least for now.

The decision, of course, rests with prime minister Modi and finance minister Arun Jaitley: Bhattacharya as the next RBI governor, or another year as SBI chairperson?