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Sheila Dikshit: biographical highlights
Sheila Dikshit: A brief biography
Entry into politics
Married To Son Of Cong Veteran, Sheila Got Direct Access To ‘First Family’ That Pitchforked Career
Before she acquired her reputation as an able administrator who oversaw the upgrade of Delhi's infrastructure, Sheila Dikshit owed her prominence in the party to family links with the Nehru-Gandhi household.
Being married to the son of Uma Shankar Dikshit, a Congress veteran who served as Union ministers of health and home, gave Sheila access to the party's First Family. Her public school background and suaveness were a help.
Family background and proximity to the Family were the reasons why Rajiv Gandhi gave her the ticket for Kannauj Lok Sabha seat in Uttar Pradesh for the 1984 elections which Congress, powered by the sympathy wave generated by Indira Gandhi's assassination, swept. A bigger proof of closeness came in the form of her appointment as minister of state attached to Rajiv Gandhi's PMO.
Opinion remains split as to how much she could make of that "lucky break", but this certainly fortified her reputation as an "insider": an advantage that helped her when she found herself on the wrong side of the changes in Congress hierarchy after the death of Rajiv Gandhi.
Sheila along with other family loyalists, K Natwar Singh, M L Fotedar and N D Tiwari, were the spearhead of the dissidence against P V Narasimha Rao when he started consolidating himself as the new party boss, exercising an autonomy that many felt encroached upon the “family’s rights” to the organisation.
She was part of the demonstration against Rao at Congress's session in 1993 and, more importantly, the clamour for restoring the party to the family by making Sonia Gandhi the party chief. When she walked out in 1994 to join the rump of Congress T (called so after N D Tiwari) it was seen as logical. So was her return to the party after Sonia dislodged Sitaram Kesri as party president.
There were few surprises when Sheila became the first beneficiary of the new regime, with Sonia appointing her the party chief in Delhi. Her appointment as CM after Congress beat BJP was a natural progression. Sheila enhanced her stature in office by providing an efficient government, but support from Sonia was a big reason why she soon dwarfed the grandees who had dominated the organisation.
There were times, especially in her last term, when the support did not look unstinted, with the leadership, in keeping with the tradition, indulgent towards her critics. This even when the new party boss doted on the matronly Sheila in public and declare in 2017, bizarrely so, her as the candidate for the post of CM in UP. The dualism increased after the rout the party suffered, beginning with her factional opponents enjoying greater leverage with the central leadership. P C Chacko's most recent public outbursts, which she decried as being "in bad taste", were part of that dichotomy.
From Flyovers And Metro Launch To Citizen Initiatives, Sheila Oversaw It All
Former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit is remembered for making “world-class city” more than a slogan. The transformative story plays out in the many flyovers, launch of the Delhi Metro rail network and outreach to the civil society through the Bhagidari movement steered by residents’ welfare associations. The initiatives caught the popular imagination and paid political dividends as she grew in stature.
Sheila’s last political battle was her toughest challenge as she was constantly at odds with party functionaries determined to ally with AAP. She doubted AAP’s desire for an alliance and felt hurt when attempts were made to override her authority. More recently, she was distressed by reports of the party she had served for so long reducing her importance through a series of organisational actions.
She managed to raise hopes of a revival and a better performance in the assembly polls in 2020 and even a better bargain in case negotiations with AAP are renewed. But her death has left Congress without a face and a big void as there is no leader who would be able to generate consensus and become a rallying point in a tired and weather-beaten party.
In an interview to TOIafter the election results in May, Sheila was quick to take responsibility for defeat. On the Congress story, she was hopeful. “You get the kudos and brickbats. This is part of politics. The Congress is in the midst of a challenge but we shall overcome this too,” she said.
She was a spirited fighter with sharp administrative skills and political acumen that could out-think most rivals. Even when the already unmet deadlines for the 2010 Commonwealth Games appeared hard to achieve in the midst of an unrelenting monsoon, Sheila was seen personally overseeing cleaning operations at the Commonwealth Games Village.
But this was also the beginning of a downward slide. There were unrelenting attacks on corruption with the build-up of the Anna Hazare movement and birth of the Aam Aadmi Party. Her one-time success in privatising Delhi’s electricity distribution was also attacked for favouring private firms. Sheila was also at the receiving end of public anger that followed the Nirbhaya gangrape case of December 2012.
Sheila’s infamous dismissal of AAP as “monsoon pests”, clubbed with a strong anti-incumbency and anti-corruption campaigns, ended her innings in the assembly election of 2013. She was ruthlessly ousted as the New Delhi MLA by current CM Arvind Kejriwal. However, Sheila was never publicly bitter about being thrown into the storm again and again by her party.
From her debut in politics as MP from Kannauj in 1984, Sheila’s political journey was nothing short of dramatic, marked by an unprecedented rise, a steep fall and a comeback of sorts where Congress president Rahul Gandhi put his faith in her. Her last battle was fought from the seat that also happened to be her first parliamentary foray in Delhi in 1998. Congress’s success in the assembly in what came to be known as the “onion election” ousted BJP, which is yet to win the city polls since then.
The “outsider” got the better of stalwarts like Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar. The opposition was then dominated by heavyweights like former CMs Madanlal Khurana and Sahib Singh Verma. She won her spurs by taking tough decisions on implementing the Supreme Court verdict on relocating polluting industries and then implementing the shift of public transport to CNG. There was a softer side to Sheila too as she focused on mindset-change by greening up the city, ‘say no to firecrackers’ campaign and working to highlight the culture of the city through the now famous “Delhi festivals”.
The years that followed saw her groom leaders as well as part ways with some of them. Former minister Ajay Maken was one of them. There were others who dithered but many stuck by her. She could be decisive in her politics as she decided to cut municipal bosses to size by controversially trifurcating the municipal corporation.
Sidelined after the 2013 election debacle till the January of 2019, Sheila was seen in the shadows of a party that was struggling to find its bearings in the city. That she believed in giving back to her party what she had received comes through in her response to a question TOI asked her before elections. Asked whether being the face of the party worried her, Sheila said, “Life is a risk. Even crossing a road is risky. So, I am not afraid. At this stage of life, I don’t have any personal ambition but I want to do this because I owe it to my party. This party has given me so much. Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi made me a minister in the Union Cabinet and so much has happened since then.”
Running the government and party
Behind the warm smile and gentle “batao beta” lay a wily political mind with an iron grip over her administration. Threeterm chief minister and state party leader Sheila Dikshit tackled thorny issues between Centre and state like the demand for statehood, land disputes and law and order with sophisticated ease.
Politics in the Sheila-era was a far cry from the noholds-barred duel that the city witnessed between the Centre and the AAP government in the past four years. When she unseated Sushma Swaraj from the CM’s seat in 1998, the government at the Centre was headed by BJP. But her amicable relationship with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and deputy PM L K Advani were well known.
In an interview to TOI a few months ago, Sheila had said that she would often go to the PM and managed to get her wish list approved with no fuss. “If I go to the PM or the home minister with a list of five things, I would make them agree on three or four,” Sheila had said. It was no empty boast. Sheila was also known for the skillful manner in which she worked in coordination with the bureaucracy, a lesson learnt as the wife of a bureaucrat herself.
Recalling an incident, former Delhi transport secretary RK Verma said the UPA government at the Centre once transferred a number of senior IAS officers out of the national capital just ahead of Commonwealth Games when the city administration was struggling to meet the deadline. “Sheila met the then home minister, P Chidambaram, and put her foot down. The home minister had to quash the orders,” said Verma.
Verma added she was willing to countenance any departure if they could achieve what was good for the people of Delhi. “She firmly believed that public interest was paramount and for larger public good there was no harm if the ends justified the means,” he said.
However, she was quite unhappy when then PM Manmohan Singh constituted an inquiry committee under former comptroller and auditor general VK Shunglu to probe irregularities in Commonwealth Games. She had said that the event that had many “proud moments” was reduced to a “contentious issue”. She had also accused the Centre of providing the logistical and infrastructural requirements late in 2009 which led to hurried preparations.
Ironically, she faced stiff competition from her own party leaders. While she was considered an outsider when she was first made president of the state Congress committee in 1998, she earned several enemies when she was made chief minister of Delhi within a span of a few months.
Delhi Congress suffered from infighting with several leaders, including Choudhury Prem Singh as Speaker, Ram Babu Sharma as standing committee chairman in MCD and party leader Subhash Chopra, working against her. But over time Sheila succeeded in wearing down the opposition both within the party and outside.
“The party veterans despised her but the young brigade supported her. With her style of working, she managed to win over even those who were on the other side of the fence. She was charming and affectionate towards everyone but at the same time commanded lot of respect,” said Arvinder Singh Lovely, her cabinet colleague.
“There were also times that her own MLAs openly revolted against her and even staged protests against her. The unwavering support she got from the central leadership and her closeness to the Gandhis did the trick and she managed to neutralise her detractors,” said Sat Pal, information officer in the CMO during her tenure.
Commonwealth Games: transformed Delhi, tripped Sheila
The infrastructure development in the capital for the 2010 Commonwealth Games changed the face of Delhi, but also opened a can of worms for the Congress government and Sheila Dikshit, the chief minister at the time.
Struggling to meet tough deadlines to build flyovers, underpasses and pedestrian bridges and beautify the city with new lighting and street furniture, officials who were associated with the project admitted that the CM took several decisions that would have taken a lot of time if the due procedure had been followed.
The allegations of irregularities and corruption forced the then prime minister Manmohan Singh to constitute an inquiry by V K Shunglu, which later found alleged procedural violations, though Delhi government strongly rejected these findings.
Government insiders said Sheila was “saddened” by the inquiry. She believed that CWG had produced many “proud moments” but had been reduced to a “contentious issue”. She lamented that Delhi government was provided with logistical and infrastructural requirements of the games only in late 2009, which led to the hurried preparations. She also blamed the central government for the lack of a clear chain of command and compared it unfavourably with the 1982 Asian Games when the Indira Gandhi-led PMO was in charge.
Unhappy with the condition of the Commonwealth Games Village in east Delhi, the CM herself went with a broom to clean the complex. Her government also suffered a massive blow when an under-construction footbridge near Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium collapsed a few days before the event, forcing the administration to call in the Army to complete the project in time for the international sporting activity.
The CAG report also blamed her for irregularities in importing equipment for street lighting. However, the officials pointed out that Sheila had played no part in awarding the contracts for street lighting. Still, during its 49-day stint in 2014, the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party government directed the Anti-Corruption Branch to lodge an FIR in the Rs 90-crore street light project against Sheila’s government.
The Delhi BJP too, prior to the 2013 elections, had asserted that the city’s image had suffered immensely because of these alleged scams and it would be the “responsibility” of the new government to probe them and punish the guilty.
2012 gang rape
Was Seen As Passing The Buck By Saying Law & Order Not Under Her
An enduring image from December 2012 is of the then Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit, wrapped in a black sweater and white sari, being bundled off by a posse of policemen as protestors boo her at Jantar Mantar.
It was December 30, a day after Nirbhaya had lost her battle with life in a Singapore hospital following her horrendous assault by six rapists. It marked Dikshit’s lowest point ever. The politician who had endeared herself to Delhi as a well-meaning dadi (grandmother) and had trumped the odds to win three consecutive assembly elections, had never before faced a crowd so hostile to her. Sensing that things could go out of control, she quickly lit a candle before being whisked away from the agitated crowd.
“I wanted to express my grief,” she said of her time at Jantar Mantar. Her attempt was met with very little sympathy. The brutal gang rape of the 23-year-old physiotherapist on December 16 and her valiant fight to stay alive had struck a chord among people who were in no mood for politics. As the crowds at Jantar Mantar increased, so did the anger against the government that Dikshit headed. Her remark then that it was the central government and not the state that was responsible for law and order in Delhi was seen as a poor attempt to shrug off responsibility.
She admitted as much in her 2018 autobiography Citizen Delhi: My Times, My Life. “Even as I quietly reached out to Nirbhaya’s family to extend them every possible help, my statement that law and order did not fall within our government’s jurisdiction was viewed as being an insensitive attempt at passing the buck,” she rued.
For someone who had always been able to gauge the political climate and plan her moves accordingly, this was a mistake that she could ill-afford. She also mentioned in interviews later that her remarks were blown out of proportion. As a loyal Congress leader she reasoned, “The Centre had not wanted the blame to fall on it directly; and I, knowing well that our government would be blamed by the Opposition, decided to take it on the chin. Someone had to take the blame.” She sought to dilute some of the accusations by launching an emergency helpline for women in distress within months of the incident, also failed to make an impact.
This was hardly the first controversial statement that she had made. In 2009, Dikshit defended her government’s decision, to grant Jessica Lal murderer Manu Sharma parole as being within its legal purview. Thirtytwo-year-old Sharma had been released on a 30-day parole on the ground that his mother was ailing, but had been discovered brawling at a Delhi nightclub violating parole conditions.
In October 2008, when the city was shaken by the murder of journalist Soumya Vishwanathan, Dikshit told media persons questioning her about the safety for women that the victim should not have been so “adventurous”. Her statement — “All by herself till 3 am at night in a city where people believe...you know...you should not be so adventurous” — set the cat among the pigeons.
While her remarks both in 2008 and 2009 attracted flak, they did not upset political equations. 2012 was different. Her words had a bearing on her loss in the 2013 assembly elections.
Sheila wanted to quit in 2012, but made up her mind not to run away from battlefield
In the winter of 2012, Sheila Dikshit underwent her second angioplasty and her family wanted her to quit politics, but then the horrific December 16 gang-rape took place and she made up her mind not to “run away from the battlefield”. After she complained of fatigue and bouts of breathlessness, doctors confirmed a 90% blockage in her right coronary artery, and she underwent the procedure. “My family told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to put health concerns before everything else. My decision to resign was almost certain. Moreover, with a year to go for the assembly election, the party had enough time to find an alternative,” Dikshit wrote in her autobiography ‘Citizen Delhi: My Times, My Life’, published last year. PTI
NEW DELHI: Sheila Dikshit was quite fond of Western music since her youth and would sit near the radio waiting for her favourite songs to be aired and a few years later also developed a fascination for footwear. Apart from these, reading was also a big passion.
Dikshit had mentioned about these in her autobiography "Citizen Delhi: My Times, My Life" published in 2018.
"Father was a member of the Gymkhana Club (of Delhi) and during my teenage years when we lived within walking distance of it, on Dupleix Lane, we would get a fresh lot of six books every weekend to last us until the next weekend. I devoured Enid Blyton's 'Famous Five' stories, Richmal Crompton's 'Just William' series and classics like Alexandre Dumas's 'The Three Musketeers' and Victor Hugo's 'Les Miserables'," she wrote.
Her favourite books were Lewis Caroll's "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass, What Alice Found There" and the Sherlock Holmes series. Friday nights, according to her, were reserved for an immensely popular western music programme called, "A Date with You", which played the latest songs.
"Clustering around the radio, we would try telepathic experiments to will the radio jockey to play the latest Doris Day or Henry Belafonte records!" she wrote. She also mentioned about her great craze for footwear.
"The shops coming up in Janpath, allotted to refugees from Pakistan who had initially spread out their wares on the floor of the corridors of Connaught Place, provided me a reprieve from the sturdiness of the two 'Bs' - Bata and Baluja! Those small shops sold eye-catching, flat leather sandals with straps in bright colours, at three rupees a pair," she wrote in the book published by Bloomsbury. From her monthly pocket money, which was Rs 5 then, she saved enough over a period to buy several pairs in various colours and simple designs.
She also loved watching movies and her first film in theatres was "Hamlet" in black-and-white.