Six weeks before Sheila Dikshit, the three-time chief minister of Delhi, faces what she admits is her âmost challengingâ election yet, she speaks of her quiet but unshakeable confidence in victory. A confidence borne of 15 years in charge. Fifteen years to build a bank of trust, faith and goodwill. Fifteen years of effecting visible change, visible progress. Fifteen years in which she has become the indisputable face of the capital. Fifteen years in which it has seemed she could do no wrong. Or at least no wrong that anyone could prove.
In person, Dikshit is a sympathetic figure. She has the appearance, in her plain sari, with her unfussy bun and her glasses, of a kindly librarian. Of course, Dikshit is not so much kindly librarian as she is kindly assassin. No one holds the reins of power for 15 years in a city teeming with political intrigue like Delhi without being an adroit wielder of the scalpel. Her great trick is to make you believe she doesnât possess that serrated edge.
In a story that sounds like it should be apocryphal, former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee once told Dikshit that they were âteflon-coatedâ politicians. âNothing negative,â he reportedly said, âcan stick to us.â But the allegations are mounting against Dikshit in what has been an annus horribilis, or rather anni horribili. The damaging indictments of anti- corruption bodies and the shrill, sharp, sustained attack of Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi claque â an attack that has opened up a vein of pent-up resentment in the middle classes at the corruption of politicians and stirred young people into a peculiar but potent froth of indignation and hope â have worn away that non-stick surface.
This time, all the mud being flung at Dikshit looks like it might stick. Might soil that once-spotless reputation.
In an interview with Shoma Chaudhury and Ashhar Khan, Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit talks about whether her party will manage to overcome the strong anti-incumbency sentiment after fifteen years in power
When TEHELKA met the chief minister in one of the many sitting rooms in her expansive official residence on Motilal Nehru Marg (the trees that line the broad avenue heavy with bats, like strange, inky fruit), we expected her to be, if not cowed by the criticism, at least somewhat wearied. Instead, she declared herself up for the fight. âThe day I feel fatigued or frustrated by a challenge will be the day I give it all up,â she says. So, we ask her, how will you react to Kejriwal, to the momentum he appears to be building? âMy reaction to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is nothing,â says Dikshit, staring us down, her convent-educated accent at its most cut-glass, âabsolutely [or âeb-solutelyâ, as she pronounces it] nothing.â
Of Kejriwal, she says: âI want to know what he stands for. What are his policies? OK, so everything is wrong. But how is he going to set it right?â
If Dikshit bristles at the mention of Kejriwal, she snorts with derision at the mention of Vijay Goel, the perceived frontrunner to be nominated by the BJP as its chief ministerial candidate, or media talk of Narendra Modiâs potential influence on the Delhi election. âWhat does he have to do with it? Heâs not going to become the chief minister,â she says. When we bring up Modiâs infamous âribbon-cutting chief ministerâ jibe, she sniffs in her best indignant schoolmarm manner: âWell, we cut ribbons when we achieve things. Besides, I donât know what kind of a remark that is, coming from a leader who aspires to be prime minister of this country.â
Her mood, feisty and combative, is a far cry from the relaxed, genial host of earlier in the interview, solicitously fussing over coffee, telling us stories of a riotous Holi when her then 10-year-old son Sandeep Dikshit â now at 49, the Congress MP from East Delhi â was âcompletely stoned on bhangâ. She imitates his lolling head and unfocussed eyes. âWe had to rush him to the hospital,â she laughs, âand it took two days for him to recover. My father-in-law was so upset, so upset!â
And there is Dikshit in a microcosm â lively and personable when talking socially; fierce and unafraid when taking on her political opponents. She may appear like a slightly rumpled, slightly dotty older aunt or grandmother, but she is fleet of mind and, when she wants to be, fleeter of tongue. Dikshit, as those â even within her own party â who have tangled with her and lost will testify, is not an opponent to be trifled with or underestimated.
Journalist and political commentator Ashok Malik says that Dikshit has been clever in her self-presentation. âShe is very much a realpolitik, pragmatic figure, but the public image she has created is one of a matronly, grandmotherly figure, which is a very good image to have,â says Malik. âAll politicians are pragmatic and cold-blooded, and all of them have to be.â Many other people spoken to for this article, long-time âSheila-watchersâ, called her âastuteâ, a careful, canny politician. Sidharth Mishra, former associate editor at The Pioneer and the author of Capital Phenomenon, a book about Dikshit, said that her political instinct and intelligence are unerring.
At its worst, her lauded political instinct is just a heightened talent for self-preservation; as in her much criticised tendency to pass the buck, her unwillingness to shoulder any part of the blame â whether it is for the shambolic organisation of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the anger over womenâs safety after the 16 December gangrape, or the corruption in her government. âAnyone can accuse me of anything,â Dikshit says, sipping her coffee. âI have told everybody, âlao na, dikhao kya haiâ (come, bring it on)â. The infuriating thing for her critics is that sheâs not wrong.
Not one of the Lokayuktaâs recommendations to the President to âcautionâ Dikshit has come to much. Neither President Pranab Mukherjee, nor his predecessor Pratibha Patil, has complied. In September, President Mukherjee declined to caution Dikshit on the misuse of public funds for advertisements during the 2008 Assembly election.
And as recently as 12 October, the Delhi High Court threw out a public interest litigation (PIL) alleging that a Lokayukta report, demanding presidential censure for Dikshitâs part in lying about the completion of 60,000 low-cost flats before the 2008 election, was âdilutedâ. Dikshit also survived the fallout from the Shunglu Committee and Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) reports in 2011 that detailed the chronic mismanagement and corruption that beset the Commonwealth Games.
The CAG report, for instance, pointed directly at Dikshit in overspending to the tune of Rs 31 crore on street lighting; of buying potted plants worth Rs 24 crore, over half of it spent after the police had ordered that the plants not be placed on the streets for security reasons; of enabling contractors to secure much larger profits than the norm. Suresh Kalmadi, the then sports minister MS Gill and the then lieutenant governor of Delhi, Tejendra Khanna, were all, in one way or another, forced to fall on their swords. Khanna, who even wrote a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh complaining that too much credit for the Gamesâ âsuccessâ was going to Dikshit, must feel particularly bitter at being held responsible for the failures while Dikshit was defended and protected by the Congress.
Dikshitâs tactics, as the storm raged about her, was to maintain a bewildered innocence. Her bureaucrats were wheeled out to say nothing was her fault. An exhaustive, if not entirely convincing, response was written by the Delhi government contradicting the Shunglu Committeeâs findings and even accusing it of paranoia. The Games, Dikshit maintained, were a national and international success rather than a wasted opportunity. Even at our meeting, she claims that the infrastructural improvements catalysed by the Games might never have happened otherwise, or might still be in the process. She does not elaborate on whether the exorbitant cost was worth it. She also does not talk about how the chairs and other expensive equipment have mysteriously âdisappearedâ from the stadiums, which themselves now wear a worn-out look, lying unused.
KT Ravindran, former chairman of the Delhi Urban Arts Commission, says that the legacy of the Games was that Delhi had become a city of flyovers and that was no achievement to trumpet from the rooftops.
Even though Ravindran is a trenchant critic of much of the development of Delhi under Dikshitâs tenure, he retains a great admiration for the chief ministerâs personal qualities, her âsophistication, her highly developed aesthetic sense, her astute leadershipâ. Itâs a common refrain. The BJP often accuses her of taking unwarranted credit for the Delhi Metro, a project in which it too claims a hand. Over the phone from Kerala though, E Sreedharan, managing director of the Delhi Metro between 1995 and 2012, said that in his view Dikshit had âvery noble qualitiesâ. He ânever felt that she took decisions based on what was best for her politically, rather than what was best for the cityâ, and that already âwithin two or three weeks of her becoming chief minister, she was dealing confidently with problems, finding solutions that did not interfere with the progress of the Delhi Metro.â
Itâs the Dikshit touch, the connection she is able to forge with people that leaves her political opponents gnashing their teeth in frustration. The ability to mask the steel beneath the velvet glove. The steel, though, is key to understanding Dikshitâs political success, her record-breaking stint in power in Delhi. Sidharth Mishra, who has âbeen on the Sheila beatâ since her losing bid for a Lok Sabha seat from East Delhi in 1997, says that she has the prized Machiavellian ability to keep her friends close and her enemies closer. Burly and jocular, Mishra enjoys telling his shaggy dog stories of political chicanery. âI think,â he says, âthat she models herself on Indira Gandhi. And, like Indira, she brooks no opposition.â
There are many examples of Dikshitâs political resourcefulness, the steady determined manner in which she has cleared her path of opposition since her first year in office, back in 1998. For instance, her expert marshalling and then sidelining of such Delhi Congress stalwarts as HKL Bhagat, Jagdish Tytler, Sajjan Kumar and the late Rambabu Sharma, once chief of the Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee (DPCC). Mishra describes the early humiliations of Dikshitâs reign, how the powerful movers and shakers in the Delhi Congress, the likes of Subhash Chopra, would inflict petty humiliations like leaving her off the list of people âallowed in the SPG enclosure with Sonia Gandhiâ at an Iftar event. âCould anyone dare to do that today?â Mishra asks. âThat was where she started, that was the situation for her in the Delhi Congress.â
Sanjay Kumar, a Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), wrote in his book Changing Electoral Politics in Delhi that âthe powerful Delhi trio of Jagdish Tytler, Subhash Chopra and Sajjan Kumar (with the tacit blessings of Kamal Nath) constantly attempted to get rid of herâ. Some â28 of the partyâs 53 members of the Legislative Assemblyâ, Kumar added, âwanted her replaced by Ambika Soniâ. It took the intervention of Congress President Sonia Gandhi, the strategic redeployment of Kamal Nath, and the introduction of Ahmed Patel as general secretary of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) in 2003, well into Dikshitâs second term, to quell the rebellion.
Itâs not dissimilar to the appointment of Ajay Maken in mid-June to head the AICCâs media department to get him out of Dikshitâs way. Maken was her protĂ©gĂ©, her parliamentary secretary in 1999. Well-placed sources in the Delhi government told TEHELKA that he used to call Dikshit his âmummyâ. Dikshit even then maintained the image we, the public, are still familiar with: the well-spoken, well-educated, genteel face of a city with international pretensions. Maken was her hatchet man, keeping influential MLAs like Yoganand Shastri and Chaudhary Prem Singh in their place. As her minister for transport, he finished the job begun by Parvez Hashmi, following through on the Supreme Courtâs orders to convert Delhiâs diesel-spouting buses to CNG in 2001. Ashok Malik says that in Dikshitâs first five years, she âclicked with the people of Delhi and became a genuinely popular chief ministerâ. He specifically cites the conversion to CNG, the easing of Delhiâs chronic smog, as a âbig, big moveâ.