Sheila Dikshit was arguably India’s first famous political bahu. She entered politics in 1984 and fought and won elections from Uttar Pradesh’s Kannauj, to be followed some years later by Dimple Yadav. But Sheila Dikshit is more famous as the Delhi Aunty, chief minister for 15 years, a politician who put the civility into civic and the class into capital.
So, it is only right that her latest karmabhoomi is the North East Delhi Lok Sabha constituency, where she will be up against the energetically loud Manoj Tiwari from the BJP and Dilip Pandey, low key head of AAP’s Delhi unit.
For a city that took little pride in its historic past and had even less faith in its future, constantly comparing itself to its smarter cousin, Mumbai, the changes Sheila Dikshit brought to it were no mean feat.
From a somewhat bucolic city of itinerant bureaucrats, plucky Punjabi refugees and heritage-obsessed Old Dilliwalas, Delhi has become a city of migrants, flanked by the millennial city of Gurgaon and the commercial-residential hodge-podge of Noida. Much of that change, after the first flush of hotel building and apartment construction by Rajiv Gandhi and his boys for the 1982 Asian Games, came thanks to Dikshit. At last count, she presided over 87 flyovers, CNG changeover of public transport, a swish Delhi Metro, and most importantly, the idea of participatory government, Bhagidari, which created a culture of powerful and responsible Resident Welfare Associations.
And they happened so seamlessly, thanks to the diminutive Dikshit that the city perhaps grew jaded of its own gilded lifestyle. When Dikshit was defeated by the Aam Aadmi Party in 2013, losing her New Delhi legislative assembly seat to Arvind Kejriwal, and the city to his party, there was almost no time to mourn the passing of an era of grace and gravitas.
Dikshit’s unhappiness with a potential alliance with AAP in this Lok Sabha election is well known. In 2013, she admitted she was “bewakoof” in underestimating the popularity of AAP in the city. Could it be that the woman who once understood the perfect balance of being PLU (people like us) in her personal life and PLT (people like them) in her professional life, has got it wrong again?
Sheila Dikshit was always the darling of the Congress’ first family. The Gandhis respected and loved her.
Her close relationship with them saw her becoming the governor of Kerala in 2014 for five months before resigning once Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government came to power, but by then it seemed she was too old, too dated and dare one say, too posh, for the emerging ugliness of electoral politics. A brief experiment in 2016 that saw the party announcing her as chief ministerial candidate for Uttar Pradesh was again aborted, amidst rumours that she was to be made a scapegoat for losing – it looked like it was all over for her.
But if points were to be given for pure unadulterated love for the Capital city, Dikshit, now 81, would still win hands down.
Sheila Dikshit has seen the city from up close since she was five years old, watching Mahatma Gandhi’s funeral procession from her father’s shoulders, taking tongas to Old Delhi, falling in love with IAS officer Vinod Dikshit while on Bus No. 10 back from Delhi University’s north campus, and meeting her future father-in-law, formidable Uttar Pradesh politician Uma Shanker Dikshit, at Alps restaurant in Janpath (as she has written in her book Citizen Delhi: My Times, My Life).
And much more than that, she has transformed the city, where she went to school (Convent of Jesus and Mary) and college (Miranda House), beyond recognition.
Her big electoral loss in 2013 was perhaps because in her later years Dikshit grew tired of her party’s innate ability to sabotage powerful regional leaders but also because she herself perhaps misunderstood the city’s new residents and their demands for free water, lower electricity rates, better government schools and basic health facilities.
Add to that her much bandied about role in the Commonwealth Games scandal as well as her inability to grasp the strength of outrage against the December 2012 rape of a paramedical student, and it was clear that Mrs D. was no longer what India Today once called her: A succour mom.
But as P.V. Narasimha Rao’s career has proved, politicians in India never retire. They just build up their reserves during periods out of power, eating enough egg white omelettes and popping enough pills.
In the case of Delhi, there is little choice for the Congress, having been unable to build a credible and popular second line of leaders, except perhaps Ajay Maken. As political analyst Kamal Mitra Chenoy says: “Sheila Dikshit has had a long innings as a charismatic CM. However, nothing is permanent, and time catches up with everyone. It is a pity that she has had to stand for elections at this age. She would have been better advised to groom younger politicians who would have many more years to go in Delhi politics.”
When Delhi, the centre of our country is faced with Right-wing populist forces of the BJP, the Delhi Congress should have brought together all political forces in Delhi to defeat these forces, he says. Such an alliance would have been better for their own survival. “The greatest victims, however, will be the poor and needy who will have to pay the cost of opportunist politics.”
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.
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