Six weeks before Sheila Dikshit, the three-time chief minister of Delhi, faces what she admits is her “most challenging” 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 doesn’t 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 “teflon-coated” politicians. “Nothing negative,” he reportedly said, “can stick to us.” 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 — 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 — 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. “The day I feel fatigued or frustrated by a challenge will be the day I give it all up,” she says. So, we ask her, how will you react to Kejriwal, to the momentum he appears to be building? “My reaction to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is nothing,” says Dikshit, staring us down, her convent-educated accent at its most cut-glass, “absolutely [or ‘eb-solutely’, as she pronounces it] nothing.”
Of Kejriwal, she says: “I 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?”
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 Modi’s potential influence on the Delhi election. “What does he have to do with it? He’s not going to become the chief minister,” she says. When we bring up Modi’s infamous “ribbon-cutting chief minister” jibe, she sniffs in her best indignant schoolmarm manner: “Well, we cut ribbons when we achieve things. Besides, I don’t know what kind of a remark that is, coming from a leader who aspires to be prime minister of this country.”
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 — now at 49, the Congress MP from East Delhi — was “completely stoned on bhang”. She imitates his lolling head and unfocussed eyes. “We had to rush him to the hospital,” she laughs, “and it took two days for him to recover. My father-in-law was so upset, so upset!”
And there is Dikshit in a microcosm — 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 — even within her own party — 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. “She 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,” says Malik. “All politicians are pragmatic and cold-blooded, and all of them have to be.” Many other people spoken to for this article, long-time ‘Sheila-watchers’, called her “astute”, 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 — whether it is for the shambolic organisation of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the anger over women’s safety after the 16 December gangrape, or the corruption in her government. “Anyone can accuse me of anything,” Dikshit says, sipping her coffee. “I have told everybody, ‘lao na, dikhao kya hai’ (come, bring it on)”. The infuriating thing for her critics is that she’s not wrong.
Not one of the Lokayukta’s recommendations to the President to “caution” 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 Dikshit’s part in lying about the completion of 60,000 low-cost flats before the 2008 election, was “diluted”. 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 Games’ ‘success’ was going to Dikshit, must feel particularly bitter at being held responsible for the failures while Dikshit was defended and protected by the Congress.
Dikshit’s 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 Committee’s 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 “disappeared” 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 Dikshit’s tenure, he retains a great admiration for the chief minister’s personal qualities, her “sophistication, her highly developed aesthetic sense, her astute leadership”. It’s 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 “very noble qualities”. He “never felt that she took decisions based on what was best for her politically, rather than what was best for the city”, and that already “within 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.”
It’s 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 Dikshit’s political success, her record-breaking stint in power in Delhi. Sidharth Mishra, who has “been on the Sheila beat” 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. “I think,” he says, “that she models herself on Indira Gandhi. And, like Indira, she brooks no opposition.”
There are many examples of Dikshit’s 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 Dikshit’s 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 “allowed in the SPG enclosure with Sonia Gandhi” at an Iftar event. “Could anyone dare to do that today?” Mishra asks. “That was where she started, that was the situation for her in the Delhi Congress.”
Sanjay Kumar, a Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), wrote in his book Changing Electoral Politics in Delhi that “the powerful Delhi trio of Jagdish Tytler, Subhash Chopra and Sajjan Kumar (with the tacit blessings of Kamal Nath) constantly attempted to get rid of her”. Some “28 of the party’s 53 members of the Legislative Assembly”, Kumar added, “wanted her replaced by Ambika Soni”. 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 Dikshit’s second term, to quell the rebellion.
It’s not dissimilar to the appointment of Ajay Maken in mid-June to head the AICC’s media department to get him out of Dikshit’s way. Maken was her protégé, her parliamentary secretary in 1999. Well-placed sources in the Delhi government told TEHELKA that he used to call Dikshit his “mummy”. 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 Court’s orders to convert Delhi’s diesel-spouting buses to CNG in 2001. Ashok Malik says that in Dikshit’s first five years, she “clicked with the people of Delhi and became a genuinely popular chief minister”. He specifically cites the conversion to CNG, the easing of Delhi’s chronic smog, as a “big, big move”.
Maken’s success meant that he began, in the words of a Congress source, to “hobnob with leaders above Sheila’s pay grade”. Dikshit began to suspect that he had designs on her job and “ensured” that his involvement was restricted in the affairs of the state. When he became a minister in the UPA government in 2004, their relationship fell apart. He still had his heart set on Delhi though and in early 2013, he spoke to the Congress high command to relieve him of his duties and appoint him as chief of the DPCC. It took another visit from Dikshit to Sonia Gandhi for JP Agarwal (the current DPCC chief and himself not on the best of terms with Dikshit) to be retained and Dikshit’s road cleared for a fourth run.
As everyone who has kept tabs on Sheila Dikshit’s rise to political prominence says, at the heart of her power is her relationship with Sonia Gandhi. The connection between the two families goes back a long way.
Uma Shankar Dikshit, the former home minister and governor of Karnataka and West Bengal, was respected and, most importantly, trusted by both Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. He stayed loyal to Indira during the Congress split in 1969 and joined her Cabinet in 1971, taking up various portfolios while also remaining treasurer of the AICC. In 1976 he became the governor of Karnataka. Born in 1901, he was by then already an old man. His son Vinod was an able officer in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). He had met and courted his wife in college where both were studying for an MA.
Sheila came from an altogether different background than the politically active Dikshits. Her youngest sister, Rama Dhawan, describes their childhood as “sedate”. They were, she says, seated in a side room in her large Nizamuddin East house, “basically a Delhi family, our father was from old Delhi and our mother from Kapurthala in Punjab”. Their father was a civilian in the army and he brought up his three girls to be public-spirited. “Having been born a few years before Independence, there seemed among the children of our generation a huge sense of patriotism, to do something for the country,” says Rama. The three sisters used to be “herded off to do some sort of shramdan organised by the Bharat Sevak Samaj”; they were also members of local girl scout-style organisations. Sheila Dikshit, born in 1938, remembers a more idle, less service-orientated childhood. “What I wanted to become was a writer, or a painter,” she says. “I knew both were out of my reach but I dreamt all the same.”
Dikshit is unsentimental and forthright about those early ambitions. Asked if she wrote a lot as a child, she says she did, “but nothing serious and nothing worth remembering. It brought out my lack of talent”. Dikshit went to school at the Convent of Jesus and Mary — alma mater, incidentally, of Aung San Suu Kyi, Aruna Roy, Priyanka Gandhi and Preity Zinta among others — before studying history at Miranda House college. It was a pleasant, urban, upper middle class life. And a little meandering. “I don’t think I was focussed really,” says Dikshit. “I was far too busy meeting friends and our family was closely knit, so the summer holidays would be spent with our cousins in Dehradun. In the winter, they would come to Delhi. Life was not very ambitious.”
Her marriage was her introduction to politics. Mani Shankar Aiyar, who alongside Dikshit was part of a talented coterie of the Kennedy-style ‘best and brightest’ that Rajiv Gandhi gathered around him, remembers her as Uma Shankar Dikshit’s right hand, “very much the political daughter-in-law”. Her husband Vinod was “an IAS officer and kept himself aloof from all these political matters but she learnt from Uma Shankarji and has used that vast experience in these last 15 years”, adds Aiyar.
Dikshit underplays that education a little, recalling how “when the first split took place with then prime minister Indira Gandhi, in the Neelam Sanjiva Reddy-VV Giri election, that was the first time I worked for my father-in-law, having just come back from England after a stint in Cambridge. Those were not the days when you had personal assistants and a retinue of staffers, so I answered the phone, took dictation, cooked, looked after my mother-in-law, my husband and the children”. Her advantage in politics, she says drily, was that she was educated. “My disadvantage was that I was not interested,” she adds.
What Dikshit did imbibe, even if through osmosis, was her father-in-law’s persona, his quiet rectitude. “One thing you observed of him,” she recalls, “was that he was silent, he was retiring, but he was very, very solid.” Dikshit tries to follow his stoic example, trying to stay above the fray (while keenly aware of the politicking taking place on her behalf ), trying to project a dignified probity. She does confess to “a sense of helplessness” after the 16 December gangrape, which was quite “traumatic”. “Almost traumatic,” she quickly corrects herself.
After Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984, Rajiv sent a message to Dikshit that she should contest from Uttar Pradesh. “Contest?” Dikshit says, mimicking her own bafflement. “I didn’t even know what he meant but my father-in-law and husband were supportive. They said it was a great opportunity and I knew enough not to argue.” The seat she picked was Kannauj and like most Congress MPs that year, she was swept to power on an enormous sympathy wave. It was a rough introduction to politics but Dikshit was phlegmatic. “I remember my first public meeting was at a fair where cows and buffaloes were being sold, so I sat on top of a thela (handcart) and said, ‘Main Congress ki hoon, main chunau ladney aayi hoon, haat hamaara symbol hain, aap vote mujhe zaroor dijiyega.’ That was all I knew to say. But I must tell you that I never felt nervous.”
There was, her sister Rama Dhawan says, plenty to be nervous about. The sisters had grown up in an open-minded, urban family. Sheila Dikshit herself had married across caste but Uttar Pradesh politics, Rama points out, “is the politics of caste and gun”. Both women travelled across the crime-ridden state without weapons, without musclemen, often in the dead of the night. After those five years, Delhi in 1998, Rama argues, was a cakewalk.
Dikshit too remembers Kannauj as being instructive. She was at the time a junior minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s office but it was the rough and tumble of Uttar Pradesh politics that was the eye-opener. Dikshit admits that Kannauj was there for her “on a platter”, the “easiest battle” she had ever fought. What she didn’t understand, though, until she’d experienced the life of an MP was “the machinations of politicians, of saying something and doing something else”. Nor did she anticipate the criminal nature of her constituency.
On her doorstep, Dikshit says, was Mulayam Singh Yadav and he taught her what she could never learn from sitting in Delhi or watching her father-in-law. “That politics was not always peaceful,” she says. In Dikshit’s second election in 1989, she remembers how Mulayam, by then chief minister, came to see her. “He told me, ‘I will support you, but I won’t support your MLAs.’” Dikshit says she thanked Mulayam for his support but her conscience wouldn’t allow her to accept it if he didn’t also support her MLAs. His response was crisp and brutal: “Phir aap rajneeti ko nahin jaanti (Then, you don’t know politics at all.)” Dikshit lost the election.
After her defeat, Dikshit retired to her flat in Nizamuddin. Her husband had died of a heart attack in the midst of her first term. Now her father-in-law was ill. Uma Shankar Dikshit died in 1991, a few days after Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a suicide bomber. “I kept up my relationship with Sonia,” Dikshit says. “She was very quiet for the next couple of years or so, but I would see her often.” Sonia Gandhi then asked Dikshit to become the secretary for the Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust. It was Sonia’s return to prominence in the Congress party that coincided with Dikshit’s own rise. She lost the first election she fought in 1997 from East Delhi, but she put up a strong challenge. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Dikshit had returned to politics, to her hometown, at a serendipitous time. She captured the zeitgeist of a city aspiring to something better, of a city that wanted to see itself in Sheila Dikshit — serious, eloquent, educated and progressive. It was a changing city, the influx of migrants, particularly from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, changing the demographic make-up. Suddenly, the Purvanchali vote became a consideration. Dikshit was ideally placed, having married into an Uttar Pradesh family and being herself of Delhi-Punjabi stock. She found herself appealing to the Congress’ traditional constituency in Delhi of poor people living in slums, resettlement colonies and unauthorised colonies, but also the more prosperous middle classes that till then had been the BJP’s base.
Her long-time BJP opponent Vijay Kumar Malhotra can say, as he did when we met him, that there has been no progress in 15 years, that “Sheila Dikshit and her government have managed to con many people into voting for them time and again, otherwise they would not have remained in power”, but the truth is that she has skillfully juggled the city’s various lobbies, has kept all the balls in the air. The BJP, having provided mediocre opposition over the last three terms, cannot even decide on its chief ministerial candidate. Vijay Goel, the presumptive candidate, has proved so unpopular, so unconvincing that he might be trumped at the last minute by Harshvardhan, a doctor with a good reputation for administration but little name or face recognition.
Goel is putting on a brave face, literally. Asked about his mood before the election, he blusters: “Look at my face, you can clearly see the confidence. The BJP will form the government with a two-thirds majority.” Predicting elections is a mug’s game, particularly in a situation where data is so limited and results so volatile. Prashant Bhushan, prominent lawyer and AAP leader, says that the party’s internal surveys — the latest taking in 35,000 people — show impressive numbers, that an outright win is possible or, at least, a hung Assembly that might lead to a fresh election. A recent AC Nielsen poll suggests that 32 percent of Delhi’s electorate wants Arvind Kejriwal as their next chief minister.
Delhi, with its curious governance model, necessarily involving the Central government and with such essentials as policing and land out of the state government’s purview, is a difficult city to control. Sheila Dikshit has marshalled every resource available to her to do it for 15 years. A source close to Dikshit says that the most useful, underrated card up her sleeve is her status as an IAS wife. She understands the bureaucracy, and bureaucrats have a soft spot for her. Besides, there is always the loyalty thing. He describes a journey towards East Delhi in 2004, when Sandeep Dikshit was campaigning for a Lok Sabha seat from that constituency. Sheila answered the phone and a voice on the other end told her that Sandeep’s opponent would be enlisting Yashwant Sinha’s support. “But,” Sheila asked, “Yashwant was Vinod’s batchmate. Will he campaign against Sandeep?” Sure enough, Sinha stayed away and Sandeep Dikshit has been the East Delhi MP for the last two terms.
Sandeep, like Sheila Dikshit, affects to be a reluctant politician. He ran a Bhopal-based non-governmental organisation that conducted research on human development issues before the 2002 riots in Gujarat spurred him to enter politics, he says, “to do something for his country”.
We are in his spare, utilitarian office, his silver Macbook incongruous among the government reports piled up on desks and bookshelves. One of the few books on the shelves is Ward Berenschot’s Riot Politics, a Dutch academic’s investigation of the structures that enabled the violence in Gujarat. Sandeep is in a surly mood, irritated by what he sees as the media’s sensationalist propping up of Arvind Kejriwal and AAP. “She will not play your game,” he snaps in response to a question about whether his mother is being forced to defend herself from charges of corruption. “Have you ever heard her defend herself? She will not play the media game. Her focus is on her work.”
He will not be drawn either to the question of the future, should his mother win a fourth term in office. If the Congress can form a government in the Centre, would it be time to give Sheila a prominent national role? “In our party, we don’t make those decisions,” he says. He is similarly tight-lipped when asked about the influence of his mother on his politics or his political career: “She’s not the guiding type.”
Sandeep has won a second term in his constituency by a handsome margin; he’s also increasingly prominent in the party both as the chief whip of the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) in the Lok Sabha and AICC national spokesperson. His political star is rising but it’s unlikely he would have got a ticket in the first place without his mother successfully nobbling (according to Congress sources) the other horses in the race, the likes of her old adversary Rambabu Sharma and Dr AK Walia. Whatever the truth of the gossip, there’s no question that mother and son have put themselves in a strong position, Sandeep’s East Delhi constituency arguably being the most diverse, the most migrant-friendly in the city.
Even now it’s hard to believe that Sheila Dikshit’s grasp is slipping. She remains, despite appearances, the wiliest of politicians. She likes to win. And she also genuinely enjoys being the face of Delhi. Her party backs her. Telecommunication and Law Minister Kapil Sibal offers some particularly exuberant support. “The Congress government and our chief minister have changed the face of Delhi in the past 15 years,” he asserts. “It is there for all to see. Votes are cast on land, not in the air, and Sheila is the leader of the land.”
Chandni Chowk MLA Prahlad Singh Sahni echoes Sibal. “We couldn’t hope for a better leader,” he says simply, if sycophantically. But you can understand the Congress’ enthusiasm for a proven winner. Her allure remains strong in the city. One political analyst says Dikshit has already, through clever ticket distribution, assured herself of 30 of the 70 seats in the Delhi Assembly. Still, inflation, the baggage of the Central government, anti-incumbency and rising utilities bills will be hard for her to overcome. Kejriwal’s fire and brimstone rhetoric, particularly about her government’s collusion with discoms to ensure corporate profits at the expense of ordinary middle class people, is sure to fire up crowds.
“In the end though,” Dikshit says – showing us around her gardens and enthusing at length about the Siberian owl that is a regular visitor – “when all the talking is through, the people will decide.” And, she adds, “I’m very comfortable with people and, I do believe, they are comfortable with me.” Hers has been a record-breaking reign; Delhi, for better or worse, bears her stamp. It will not be easy to knock Sheila Dikshit off her perch.
With inputs from Ushinor Majumdar