One afternoon in early July 2013, she walked almost unnoticed into the waiting room at our makeshift television studio in the Film City.
Humble to the core, she affected an easy demeanour. She spoke with an impeccable flourish. She switched from Hindi to English and back with ease. She was spot on time and didn’t want to waste a minute.
There was no anxiety. Invited to be a guest for the issue-based ‘Bharat Bhagya Vidhata’ pre-election series aired on
Zee News, the then chief minister of Delhi, was ready to roll. Ask me anything, was her one-line brief! Sheila Dikshit,
She came across as a truly people’s representative ready to face the public through the interviewer. Of course, she was excited to face him given that he (Ashutosh Rana) was from Bollywood and had been drafted to talk to politicians of all hues as people’s representative.
For a 24x7 politician, she might have preferred a newsroom anchor. That is why she didn’t duck from answering questions on corruption charges against her.
Reimagining Political Narrative
As she exited the studio, I sought her informal feedback. She made a couple of quick points as if to provide the critical subtext to the main text. One, she was unduly being given all the credit for the development of Delhi and two, she lamented the growing indifference of the general public towards the breed of politicians. This pained her. Imagine now in hindsight that she had seen the writing on the wall.
I congratulated her on her ability to think out of the box and aim to connect directly with students appearing for board exams (incidentally now a common trend). This was Sheila Dikshit offering them de-stressing tips on Radio. The topic got her really excited.
The reason wasn’t that obvious. A little prod and she offered an insight: Who knows more about stress than politicians? Was it a lament or a dig at the media?
Her anguish was that politicians live a dangerous life: Drawing a fine balance between the individual and the institution at the professional level and between the public and private life.
Truth be told, Dikshit had reached the pinnacle of her popularity. Hence her mild outburst appeared to be little out of context. But then the anti-corruption campaign must have been weighing on her mind.
The Sheila Dikshit Model of Development
Today, when I broke the news of her death at home this afternoon, our maid was the first to react with utter shock. Her one-line comment said it all: Isn’t she the one who built all the flyovers in Delhi?
When I asked her whether she knew which party Dikshit belonged to, she said she didn’t know the party name but that she had developed east Delhi.
Therein lies the irony of her politics.
Lauded by masses as the one who changed the face of Delhi, Dikshit’s popularity cutting across gender, age and social strata got her the coveted record of being the three-time chief minister of Delhi. But did the institution (her party) ultimately let her down?
In an era of highly polarised politics featuring Left, Right and Centre, she had been able to build a distinct identity for herself. Was that her undoing? Did the machinations of the palace politics hurt her morale?
Dikshit established her own development model. She reimagined governance establishing east Delhi as a new development template.
But why was it that the Sheila Dikshit development model didn’t gain political currency? In the run-up to 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the political narrative was all about the Gujarat Model and at times the Bihar Model came up for competition. But the fabulous Delhi story never came across as a challenger. Why?
Yes, today when she is no more, her party is singing her praise. "We regret to hear of the passing of Smt Sheila Dikshit. Lifelong Congresswoman and as three-time CM of Delhi she transformed the face of Delhi,” the Congress said.
The beauty of Dikshit’s brand of politics was that she had her share of controversies and charges of corruption but possessed few enduring enemies. Privately, even her staunchest political rivals would marvel at her grace and political sagacity.
Her Vote for Institution
Typical of India where institutions get appropriated on political lines, she steered the DMRC success story without much acrimony, at least not in the public space. The Vajpayee government had appointed Madan Lal Khurana, another Delhi veteran to be the chairman of the Metro Corporation and unlike the scene today, he and Dikshit did make DMRC the institution it is today, backing the Metro Man (E Sreedharan) to the hilt.
Having had a golden run as CM, she ran out of luck as ‘new-age politics’ that spawned out of India against Corruption (IAC) movement drowned her party in the state assembly polls.
As Delhi welcomed the change, there was a deep public lament for the individual. Nobody wanted her to lose, never mind her party biting the dust.
She endured the grace as she moved out from the Governor’s House in Kerala to settle down for political anonymity as her party virtually disowned her and party infighting became the headline. Her exit though coincided with the record fall for the party as it didn’t cross the 50 digit mark in 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
Dikshit was resurrected briefly in the Uttar Pradesh (her place of political origin) 2017 political experiment carried out by her boss in alignment with the Samajwadi Party. But it was not to be. The idea looked like an afterthought.
Never Say Die!
As India came tantalisingly close to 2019 Lok Sabha elections, she was yet again invested with the most challenging task of resurrecting Congress in Delhi. She was made Delhi party president in January 2019.
Political bravado apart, the task at hand was like scoring 20 runs per over with just five overs left in ODI match. She took charge in right earnest but the damage was already done.
As BJP marshalled a record victory, everyone had a prayer: We need Sheila Dikshit for the state polls. Her heart beats for Delhi and Delhites’ love for her endures.
With a cardiac arrest snatching her away from her milling fans, Delhi will have to wait for another leader of her stature. That is indeed a tall order. It is to her credit that her work showed Delhi in a good light.
Politicians will, of course, now get busy to appropriate her legacy.
Rakesh Khar is senior editor, Special Projects, Network 18. He writes at the intersection of politics and economy. Read Rakesh Khar's columns