Sheila Dikshit, perhaps, will go down in history not only as Delhi’s longest serving Chief Minister, but also as a politician whose passing away brought together leaders of various political parties, who outdid each other in paying rich tributes to her. In fact, her funeral was covered live by multiple TV channels, and the sort of attention she received exceeded the coverage bestowed on several of our former Prime Ministers.
In a happening which was exceptionally unprecedented, her body was kept at the AICC headquarters for her supporters to have a last glimpse of their leader. This unique privilege was not accorded to P.V. Narasimha Rao, whose last rites were performed in his home state, since the Congress dispensation, headed by Sonia Gandhi, did not allow his body to be brought to 24, Akbar Road, a matter which did not sit well with the political class.
Similarly, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, the man responsible for fragmenting Indian polity into sharp caste-based manoeuvres, had an isolated final journey; there were solely three persons on Sardar Patel Marg, marching behind the gun carriage carrying his casket to the airport, en route to Allahabad. Chandra Shekhar and Inder Kumar Gujaral did not receive the respect, which Prime Ministers are entitled to, but that is the semantics of politics.
In 1998, Sheila Dikshit was brought to Delhi politics by Indira Gandhi’s political adviser, Makhan Lal Fotedar, despite the fact that she had lost four Parliamentary elections, three from Uttar Pradesh, and one from East Delhi. She was appointed the DPCC president so as to end increasing factionalism in the party to diminish H.K.L. Bhagat’s role in city affairs. Sonia Gandhi had taken over—becoming the Congress president—and thus there was renewed enthusiasm amongst party workers who then were determined to dislodge the BJP from the seat of power in the capital. At that point, Sheila was unsure of winning her own Assembly seat from Gole Market and it was only the Sonia-factor riding on an anti-BJP wave that brought the Congress to power.
Sonia was reluctant to appoint her as the Chief Minister but both Fotedar and Arjun Singh convinced her that she was the appropriate candidate, and that was how, on 3 December 1998, her innings commenced. Sheila’s rise to the top coincided with the stratospheric emergence of the electronic media. Leaders without a mass base, yet proficient in English and Hindi, dominated the news-bites. If there was Sheila and Kapil Sibal in the Congress ranks, there was Arun Jaitley and Pramod Mahajan from the BJP, amongst many others. The real leaders had been relegated by the TV journalist, who only needed sound and suave bites. This courtship with the electronic media continued till her very end and the scale of the coverage her passing away received was a testimony to this symbiotic relationship.
In Sheila’s first year as CM, Sonia Gandhi had serious reservations regarding her performance. In 1999 when the BJP won all the seven seats, including South Delhi, from where Dr Manmohan Singh had contested, the Congress president was absolutely disconcerted, and summoned both Ahmed Patel and Ambika Soni, her two principal aides, asking them to find a replacement. However, Sheila’s benefactors stood behind her with irreplaceable tenacity.
There is little doubt that Sheila had developed an extremely close rapport with both Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani and as well as with Arun Jaitley. So much so, that the BJP started preferring her to its own leaders—Madan Lal Khurana and Saheb Singh Verma. When Khurana in 2003 was poised to become the Leader of Opposition in the Delhi Vidhan Sabha, he was packed off as Governor of Rajasthan, much against his known wishes. The idea was to ensure a smooth running for Sheila. This led to accusations of a Sheila-BJP understanding, which was vehemently denied by their supporters.
Sheila got more credit for things which others had started; the Metro project was launched by Khurana, after his meeting with Narasimha Rao in 1993. The Dhaula Kuan and AIIMS flyovers were conceived by PWD chief engineer, K.B. Rajoria, in 1994 on the insistence of Khurana. It is another matter that she was in power when these projects were completed. The CNG vehicles were introduced only after the court pulled up the government amidst reports of growing pollution. The privatisation of power took place during her tenure and her opponents alleged that she was, all the way, facilitating one particular power company.
The Commonwealth Games left behind a series of serious charges of corruption. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ordered an inquiry and asked former CAG chief V.K. Shunglu to probe the matter. It was in this backdrop that the 2013 Assembly Polls were held and Arvind Kejriwal, who pitted himself against the then Chief Minister from New Delhi, trounced her.
Sheila had her plus points, the foremost being her ability to keep the bureaucracy and the Opposition on her side. It was essentially because of her deft handling of delicate situations through hand-picked officers that she managed to sail through many turbulent times.
Sheila was the CM, but not a leader of Delhi like Chaudhury Brahm Perkash, Bhagat and Khurana. These three titans created and developed a new leadership for their party, while the Congress organisation was relegated during her 15-year tenure just as it was diminished at the national level through Sonia Gandhi’s presidentship. Sheila Dikshit was mostly affable, and endearingly articulate. She acquired her elevated status because she was a highly accomplished politician. RIP. Between us.