In the autumn of 1998, the Congress central leadership made a surprise announcement. It made Sheila Dikshit the face of the Delhi Assembly elections that were to be held a few months later.
She was an unknown figure in Delhi politics, even though she had lived in the capital almost all her life and been a minister of state in the Rajiv Gandhi government. Her only foray into Delhi politics was when she contested parliamentary election from East Delhi constituency. Her critics both within and outside the Congress dismissed her prospects. One of the party veterans had then summarised her prospects in one line using a Hindi phrase: “Kath ki handhi dubara nahi chadti (a pot made of wood for cooking can’t be used twice)". Her only claim to fame, as her rivals within Congress would then point out, was that she was close to the Gandhi-Nehru family and was daughter-in-law of veteran leader from Uttar Pradesh Uma Shankar Dikshit.
Those were tough times for the Congress. The central party leadership was in disarray. Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA was ruling at the Centre and in Delhi, one of the most prominent and capable campaigners, Sushma Swaraj, was made chief minister, replacing Sahib Singh Verma. The challenge for her couldn’t be tougher.
She proved everyone wrong and when the results of Delhi Assembly election were declared, Congress had won it conclusively. She became the first Congress chief minister in Delhi.
In many ways, her rise was reflective of the changed demography and aspirations in the national capital. Though a Punjabi Khatri from Punjab who lived in Delhi, her political lineage was traced to Uma Shankar Dikshit. She presented a fine combination of Punjabiat and Poorvanchali. As compared to a Madan Lal Khurana or a Sahib Singh Verma or a VK Malhotra of BJP and a Sajan Kumar, a Jagdish Tytler, a Mukesh Khanna or a JP Agrawal of Congress, she was seen as a refreshing leader who had no baggage of the past.
She was soft, suave, educated, articulate and carried an aura of dignity. She was equally at ease with Hindi and English. She would impress a visitor with warmth and motherly charm. To all Delhi government reporters, she brought in a welcome different experience.
To her credit, she was completely unmindful of how various factional leaders in Delhi behaved and conspired against each other. She knew that whatever and howsoever hard they may try, they were not going to succeed in their design. She enjoyed full confidence of Congress' first family, something that was seen publicly till her end. She thus focused on governance. There is a lot to her credit. The Metro rail today, considered the pride of Delhi, is her gift to the city (though it was planned during BJP rule in the city).
She made sure that she worked in collaboration and coordination with the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government at the Centre and did everything possible for citizens of the city state. The network of flyovers that are seen today in Delhi, barring few that have come up recently, were again Dikshit's contribution. The magnificent glass building on the banks of river Yamuna which houses the chief minister’s office and headquarters city government was the result of her vision and planning. She had a great sense of aesthetics and styling. Delhi government headquarters is living portrayal of that.
She remained at the helm of the Delhi government for 15 years and has seen both BJP and Congress governments at the Centre. But not even once was there any incident of conflict between chief minister and Lieutenant-Governor, no instance of conflict between Centre and city state.
Her government partnership with Resident Welfare Associations called 'bhagidari' was a novelty of its time.
It had always been difficult to assess how she lost her own Assembly seat to current Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal after being in power for a decade and a half. After all, she had done so much for the city. She surely paid the penalty of the massive anti-incumbency of the Manmohan Singh government at the Centre.
What had been reassuring to her and her supporters was that Sonia and Rahul Gandhi never lost their faith in her. At the age of 80, she was made Congress’ chief ministerial candidate for UP. Though that decision was changed later when Congress aligned with Samajawadi Party, she was brought back as Delhi Congress president. She kept her foot down to ensure that Congress didn’t have an electoral adjustment with its rival Aam Aadmi Party.
Her rivals in the Congress should have saluted the grit of an 81-year-old lady who, despite being unwell, was trying to the best of her capacity to regroup and revive fortunes of her party.
Sheila Dikshit leaves a rich legacy for her party and her followers.
Updated Date: Jul 20, 2019 22:06:39 IST