Sheila Dikshit, the stalwart who breathed elegance into Delhi's heritage

Sheila Dixit
Delhi’s longest serving chief minister, Sheila Dikshit lived a full life and died suddenly: and her greatest contribution was not that she helped to revive a moribund Congress in the national capital or that she initiated many schemes (some that worked, some that didn’t) as chief minister that made the life of those living in the national capital a little better. Her real contribution was to breathe a little taste, a bit of culture and a hint of elegance in Delhi. For that she will always be remembered, whether it was parks or gateways or arches or stupas. Everything she did was mindful and thoughtful.

Politics was not a career Dikshit was born into, but she grew into the role when she married Vinod Dikshit, an IAS officer and son of Umashankar Dikshit, one of the most influential politicians in the Congress in UP in 1962. She was a Kapoor. They were Brahmins. When her husband died unexpectedly of a heart attack, Dikshit took on the mantle of managing her small family – son Sandeep and daughter Latika, both still in school – and her father in law’s home and vast political empire. It was here that she learnt the ropes of smoke-filled rooms and came into contact with Indira Gandhi, Pupul Jayakar and others in the arts and craft circle. She spoke perfect English, excellent Hindi and good Punjabi, and she was au courant with intellectual and literary trends as well, having accompanied Vinod to Cambridge on a sabbatical. From 1971, when Indira Gandhi came into her own, till 1984, Sheila Dikshit was smitten by Mrs Gandhi’s personality. She writes in her biography that after the Janata Party victory in 1977, when she went to meet her, she had a hint of moisture in her eyes. Dikshit admired Gandhi all the more for this display of vulnerability.

When Indira Gandhi was assassinated and Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister with 40 plus seats, Dikshit was appointed minister of state for parliamentary affairs, an understudy to HKL Bhagat and in 1988, in the PMO. Her formal initiation into active politics was barely a few months old. She was assigned the Kannauj parliamentary constituency just ahead of the 1984 elections. About her, her opponent, one Chhote Singh Yadav said: ‘she’s a novice, speaks English, goes ball-room dancing and is not going to make this place her home. Once in a while when she pays a visit, she will stay at Mr Kapoor’s or at the guest house. Now, I’m your man, a son of the soil’. She won by a margin of 50,000. She was an MP, a minister.

When Rajiv Gandhi lost the elections, Dikshit decided to put politics in abeyance: in any case, Mr Chhote Singh Yadav had defeated her. She opted to look after her ailing father in law. Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated and when she gave the news to the ailing Uma Shankar Dikshit, he turned his face to wall and said: ‘and here I go on living…’ He died within weeks after that.

After a long hiatus, it was a call from Sonia Gandhi in 1998 that changed life for Dikshit again: Gandhi asked her to contest the East Delhi Lok Sabha seat. It was a proposition Dikshit could not say no to. As it is, with PV Narasimha Rao, life had been difficult. A small group of Congressmen led by ND Tewari, Dikshit, Rangarajan Kumaramangalam and others had formed the Tewari Congress. Narasimha Rao was not happy about this rebellion. Fighting an election without party resources was no easy job. She lost the election. But her role in Delhi was to become bigger and bigger.

When Sonia Gandhi made her the Delhi chief of the Congress ahead of the 1998 elections, Dikshit could not have imagined that she, a relative newcomer to Delhi politics that had been dominated by the likes of HKL Bhagat and Madan Lal Khurana of the BJP would manage to take the Congress to victory. She did it not once but thrice.

During her chief ministership, she faced a variety of challenges. She wanted to modernise Delhi’s traffic by introducing innovations she had seen abroad. But Delhi’s car-owning public was having none of that. A court mandated order that diesel run buses be outlawed in Delhi to address the pollution problem saw a serious assault on the political economy of public transport in Delhi: many of those who owned diesel buses were both her colleagues and fellow politicians in the opposition. The court also ordered that properties in Delhi that violated building and land use laws and by laws must be demolished. Angry traders and home owners wanted to know how civic officials who had accepted bribes in order to turn a blind eye to large scale building violations could now demolish their buildings and not be punished themselves. Combined with the Bus Rapid Transport  (BRT) system, the confusion and crisis in urban Delhi was complete.

Amazingly, Dikshit survived that as well coming to power in 2008 again as chief minister. She was unseated in 2013 as the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) cme to power, targeting her and the BJP in equal measure. The 2014 Lok Sabha election saw a disastrous Congress performance in Delhi, 2019 being not much better.

By now, it was clear that though Dikshit still had ideas and robust common sense about politics, her energy was flagging. In her demise, the Congress has lost a daring leader.