It was a hot summer afternoon when I first saw veteran Congress leader Sheila Dikshit. I was 26, and running her campaign for the East Delhi Lok Sabha constituency. Finally, I thought, Delhi may just have a dignified politician.
Unlike the other older politicos, Sheila wasn’t aloof. She was accessible, she was sweet and most of all, she did not always talk politics. Unlike the khadi-kurta donning leaders, she knew the value of spending time with family and friends.
I’ll never forget the day when Ajay Maken and I went for coffee to a café near the Delhi Congress office. The senior leaders couldn’t believe that two of us had just decided to sit in a café and have a conversation, so they went and complained about us to Sheila ji. She called us, and we went in not knowing what to expect. Imagine our surprise when she patted us on the back and said, “Next time, take me along as well.”
We spent over 15 years working side by side, and one thing that can be said with certainty is that her vision for Delhi is the reason the capital developed the way it did. During my tenure as education minister, she was one of the few who backed me when I proposed that public schools must have a 20 per cent reservation for underprivileged children. I still remember the excitement she felt when we broke ground on the construction of the Signature Bridge.
When she took over as chief minister in 1998, Delhi had more potholes than it had roads. She began the construction of numerous flyovers. The electricity situation was abysmal in the national capital. She reduced 12 hour-long power outages to practically none.
She was a believer and had faith in people. I remember, just before the assembly elections in 2013, she called and said that she needed me in the urban development ministry because no work was happening in the unauthorised colonies. The best thing about her was that every time she was on the road, and spotted a broken street light or a damaged bus, she’d immediately call and ask for it to be fixed.
But most of all, she knew how to have fun.
Like me, she was a big foodie. I will never forget the speaker’s lunch that Chaudhary Prem Singh used to host. He was a man of simple tastes, there would no garlic and onion in his food. So I’d always order myself some chole bhature or some Chinese food aside from the buffet he’d arrange. She’d just smile at me and say, “Mere liye bhi kar do.”
She had impeccable taste in music, with a preference for Sufi music, and loved to watch movies. She took me along when Aamir Khan specially screened Lagaan for her.
This generation may not realise it, having grown up in a very different Delhi, but she was the force behind the political and developmental makeover of the national capital. She has left a vacuum that will be hard to fill.
As told to ThePrint’s Deeksha Bhardwaj
Arvinder Singh Lovely is a former Delhi cabinet minister and former Delhi Congress chief. Views are personal.