Delhi was one of the earliest bastions of the BJP, from the time that the party was the Jana Sangh. Barring a few exceptions in the eighties, the party ruled over the capital and even the students' union of the University of Delhi owed allegiance to the saffron party.
The first person to challenge this successfully was Sheila Dikshit who became the chief minister of the city-state in 1997 and continued till 2013. Undoubtedly the changing demographic profile of Delhi — earlier dominated by the BJP leaning Punjabi refugees but from the early nineties, migrants from UP and Bihar began to hold sway — helped Dikshit re-establish Congress dominance. Her dominance was ultimately challenged by Arvind Kejriwal, a decade and a half later, who came to power riding on the support of the underclasses.
Incidentally, Sheila Dikshit was herself a Punjabi and was born as Sheila Kapoor in Kapurthala in Punjab. But she married the son of a prominent Congressman of those times, Uma Shankar Dikshit (later to be governor of West Bengal), and this gave her entry into the inner circles of power in Delhi.
A product of the Convent of Jesus and Mary (CJM) in Delhi and the Miranda House in Delhi University, she was a corporate PR manager of a private company in Delhi before she became a politician. Many journalists remember her as a friendly, well-meaning and talkative contact. This is what gave her strength in the hurly-burly of Delhi’s politics.
Sheila, for the first time, became an MP in 1984 from a constituency in Western UP and soon thereafter Rajiv Gandhi became the Prime Minister and she was made a minister of state. By this time her husband Vinod Dikshit, an IAS officer from UP, had died in a heart attack on a train from Lucknow to Delhi. Sheila had met her husband in the MA class but marriage came three years later because of the cultural differences in the two families — she came from a Punjabi Khatri family and he came from a high class conservative Brahmin family. Sheila made her mark in politics with her easy and polite ways. Her passport to success was, however, her proximity to the inner echelons of the Gandhis.
Her first big break came in 1997 when she was able to lead the Congress party to victory in Delhi. In those days Delhi was considered a saffron bastion. But Sheila with her own background in Delhi was able to rule the state with such aplomb that she continued for an unprecedented three terms. It is during her time that the ever-expanding Delhi changed with a bevvy of flyovers and the establishment of the metro rail.
To be the chief minister of the capital city of India with central government and all senior leaders of the country lurking around is not an easy job. But Sheila with her polite ways and deep engagements across the board was able to effectively govern the city-state with only a few allegations made against her.
Sheila Dikshit had a human touch as an administrator which was felt by many. My father-in-law suffered what seemed like a heart attack while visiting Delhi Haat sometime in 2003. But the entire passage to the parking area was blocked by cars and security men of the chief minister who was visiting the Haat for an Onam function that was on. These busy bodies would just not clear the way. My sister-in-law, finding no other way, ran to the chief minister for help. She immediately fired her men and told them to clear the way. "Is the chief minister God?" she asked her security men who were next seen scurrying to help my father-in-law. In the end, she passed her number and that of her personal assistant to my sister-in-law and told her: revert to me if you find the hospital is not responding properly. This human touch made her the person she was.
The equity that she built was apparent after she passed away suddenly. Mourners from across party lines visited her home to pay condolences. This included former President Pranab Mukherjee, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Even her political opponents had good things to say about her. And although in the language used by politicians “all dead men (and women) are good", the expressions used by many opposition leaders after the death of Sheila showed that they believed genuinely in what they said.
Manoj Tiwari of the BJP, who beat Sheila Dikshit in the last Lok Sabha polls by a handsome margin a few months ago, went to her home to seek her blessings after he emerged victorious. President Ram Nath Kovind also paid handsome tributes remembering her for the momentous transformation of Delhi during her period in office. Though Sheila Dikshit at 81 was old, her spirit was indomitable and this is the reason the Congress party appointed her as Delhi Pradesh Congress chief earlier this year. As such her passing away will be a setback to the Congress now grappling with troubles of all kinds.
Every night Sheila used to go sleep listening to classical Hindustani music that enervated her spirit. One wonders whether her passage to the otherworld was marked by this sweet music in her soul.
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Kingshuk Nag is an author and a journalist.