The process of constructing flyovers and the Delhi Metro were initiated by her — these have been expanded and taken forward by her successor.
At a time when the Congress Party seems out in the dumps — leaderless, rudderless and clueless, the subject of many uncharitable comments and ridicule — Sheila Dikshit was one Congress leader on whose demise laudatory comments are pouring in from all leaders, cutting across the ideological divide. It’s an unmistakable tribute to the contribution of the three-time chief minister of Delhi towards its emergence as a modern, vibrant city and a pulsating centre of art and culture. The process of constructing flyovers and the Delhi Metro were initiated by her — these have been expanded and taken forward by her successor.
Having been the spouse of an IAS officer, she was aware of the role and significance of the civil services and knew the nitty-gritty of public administration and how to get things done. During her long years as chief minister, civil servants never threatened to go on strike or accused her of disrespecting or browbeating them — instances like last year, when the sitting chief secretary and his colleagues alleged physical assault on them at a meeting at the CM’s residence were unheard of in Dikshit’s time.
It was an acknowledgement of her ability and competence as an administrator that she was brought in at the last minute to get the Commonwealth Games preparations completed in time for its inauguration, which she did.
Like her predecessors and her successor, she too was keen that Delhi be given the status of a full state and conveyed her considered views to the Centre through the official channels available. However, being a realist and pragmatist, until this would happen, she was prepared to live with the existing constitutional provisions and maintain cordial, productive and result-oriented relations with the lieutenant-governor of the day. Yes, from time to time, she had serious differences with the L-G, but she never allowed such differences to degenerate into a public spat, as was often the case between the current Delhi CM and the former L-G, Najeeb Jung. She used diplomacy, not lung power or a show of strength on the streets, to get her proposals approved by the L-G.
Even when she was a minister of state in the PMO under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, she wasn’t known to throw her weight around. She maintained her dignity and respected others. It was an open secret that she was reasonably close to the Nehru-Gandhi family and her ascendancy and clout can be attributed a lot to her proximity to the family, but she didn’t bear this perception on her sleeves.
In 2002, she was invited by Chicago’s legendary mayor Richard M. Daley, through the intervention of the Indian consulate in Chicago, to sign a sister city agreement between Chicago and Delhi in Chicago (twining of cities).An argument was floated in Delhi that the mayor of Delhi should do the honours and not the chief minister. We pointed out that the mayor of Chicago was an executive mayor with an annual budget of over $6 billion, and was responsible for not only civic amenities, including parks, schools and art councils, but also for running the airport, which wasn’t the case with Delhi’s mayor. After the file went back and forth a couple of times, her trip was eventually cleared by the L-G, but it got stuck at the external affairs ministry, where the secretary dealing with it had written on the file that there was no need for the Delhi CM to travel to Chicago for signing such an agreement. Understandably, the chief minister was annoyed, and also frustrated. Her personal secretary, an IAS officer, telephoned
me in Chicago saying that the CM was willing to come but the MEA had shot down the proposal. I advised her to tell Sheilaji to pick up the phone and speak with then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee directly and expressed my optimism that the Prime Minister would clear her visit. When the next day, Sheilaji phoned Vajpayeeji and he inquired how she was, she retorted, “Aapke raj mein Sheila Dikshit ko ek qaidi (prisoner) ki tarah treat kiya ja raha hai... aapka videsh mantralaya usko Hindustan se bahar nahi jane de raha!” The gentleman that Vajpayee was, he was taken aback and quipped: “Nahin! Nahin! Aapko kaun rok sakta hai?” He cleared her visit the same day! This was the cordial relationship Sheila Dikshit enjoyed with the leaders of parties that were opposed to the Congress.
When she visited Chicago again to attend the convention of the Association of American Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI), we organised a brief cultural programme in her honour at the Indian consulate. She was impressed by the standard of Kathak dance by the young dancers of the Anila Sinha Foundation, whose teachers had been trained by Pandit Birju Maharaj — she especially liked the rendition of Amir Khusro’s famous Tilak chhap by local Indian American singers.
In 2007, when I was serving as dean of the Foreign Service Institute in New Delhi, she delivered a lecture on “Bhagidari” — the budding diplomats were impressed by the clarity of her vision, her erudition and her realisation that for Delhi’s transformation, its citizens have to be made stakeholders.
Her loss to Arvind Kejriwal, a total newcomer in politics, from a constituency which had thousands of middle class voters, was a humiliating setback to the veteran Congress leader. Many observers believe she was a victim of an anti-Congress wave in Delhi, which was triggered off rather by the widespread disillusionment with UPA-2 rather than by her own unpopularity. Prior to the 2019 parliamentary election in April-May, she stoutly opposed any alliance with the AAP, which was a mistake. It seems that her hurt got the better of her political judgement.
She wasn’t keen to contest the 2019 parliamentary election but bowed to the party’s decision and paid the price. It was the Narendra Modi tsunami which sealed her fate.She should have declined to contest. The old guard of the Congress Party should gracefully withdraw from active politics to make way for young leaders.
With Sheila Dikshit has ended the era of gentle, cultured, refined and popular leaders of Delhi who also possessed enviable administrative abilities and who shunned a divisive and hate-filled political agenda.