POST TIME: 28 July, 2019 11:20:43 AM
Leaving an imprint
Delhi will miss Sheila Dikshit, the diminutive lady with a gentle touch and iron will

Leaving an imprint

Congress leader Sheila Dikshit did not die unsung. In fact, she got more media coverage than expected: national newspapers gave her several pages of space and mourners queued up to pay her last respects. Even the Congress Party rose to the occasion and did whatever needed to be done to bid her farewell. The last is important because the party has not been consistent in honoring its leaders and have usually gone by the relationship the deceased has had with those at the helm. Take the example of former Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao who died in 2014.
Volumes have been written about the shoddy treatment meted out to Rao, the man who ushered in economic reforms, a former Prime Minister, former Chief Minister and former Congress President. That Rao was a stalwart is beyond doubt and it was understandable that his family wanted his final rites to be performed in Delhi which was rightfully his work space or karmabhoomias they would say in Hindi.
Going by what Rao’s biographer Vinay Sitapati has written in Half Lion and is common knowledge that his family was dissuaded from performing the last rites in New Delhi and asked to take his body to his home state. Unlike Sheila Dikshit, Rao’s body was not kept in the Congress headquarters in the Capital for people to pay their last respects.  

“The home minister, Shivraj Patil, suggested to Rao’s youngest son, Prabhakara, that ‘the body should be cremated in Hyderabad’. But the family preferred Delhi. After all, Rao had last been chief minister of Andhra Pradesh more than thirty years ago, and had since worked as Congress general secretary, Union minister, and finally prime minister — all in Delhi. On hearing this, the usually decorous Shivraj Patil snapped, ‘No one will come.’

Kashmiri Congressman Ghulam Nabi Azad, another aide of party president Sonia Gandhi, arrived. He too requested the family to move the body to Hyderabad,” writes Sitapati. And finally when a memorial was built to honour Rao it was some ten years after his death and one that the BJP built.

It was  M Venkaiah Naidu, then Union Minister and currently India’s Vice President, who moved a proposal for the approval for building a memorial for the former Prime Minister at ‘Ekta Sthal’, which is now integrated with ‘Rashtriya Smriti’, a common place for erecting memorials for former Presidents, Prime Ministers and others.

Sheila Dikshit was luckier. She had only one designation to match Rao’s that of being a Chief Minister and  was neither Prime Minister nor Congress President. But official designations have rarely dictated the clout Congress men and women have enjoyed within the Party: it has been more about the access they have to the leadership and whether the leaders are kindly disposed towards them. On this count, Sheila Dikshit was on solid ground. She had the affection of Congress first family: the Gandhis, her dream run beginning with Rajiv Gandhi. Handpicked by him in 1984 to be part of his council of ministers, she represented the Kannauj Lok Sabha seat.

After Rajiv Gandhi’s death Sheila went into political oblivion till a call from Rajiv’s widow Sonia Gandhi changed it all. When she was asked to contest the election, little did she know that this would be a long innings and beginning of her  political honeymoon with Delhi. She ruled it as its Chief Minister for three terms: one of the longest serving  Chief Minister for 15 years from 1998 to 2013 when she lost to Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal who succeeded her as Delhi’s Chief Minister: a contrast to Dikshit’s elegance and convent school background. Delhi’s elite missed her more than ever and Sheila Dikshit sunk into political oblivion yet again. She was sent to Kerala as Governor in 2014 but resigned in less than six months once the BJP routed the Congress and came to power. Three years on and she was projected as the Chief Ministerial candidate for the state of Uttar Pradesh: a tough call. Political developments forced her hand and she withdrew from the contest. She was back at the helm in 2019 and took over as the state Congress Chief with the Congress hoping a comeback but hopes were dashed when Sheila lost the election against her counterpart in the BJP.

Sheila Dikshit was Delhi’s darling at least to the English speaking elite, her sprawling home as Chief minister always open for everyone. But her tenure was froth with controversies. There were immense challenges and her bid to modernise Delhi on the pattern of the West faced resistance; there were court battles over banning diesel buses in Delhi to address the problem of pollution; the Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) corridor proved a disaster. The positives however were the speeding up of the Metro, new flyovers that changed the face of Delhi, public transport switching to CNG and privatization of power distribution: initially a red rag but a blessing in the long run. Even her bitterest critics concede that power availability and accountability has dramatically improved.

Nobody can take away Dikshit’s single handed perseverance in transforming Delhi and changing its face: like no one can erase the blot of the 2010 Commonwealth Games scams and her insensitive handling of the Nirbhaya gang rape case in 2012.

Life for Dikshit was a mixed bag. She lost her husband, Vinod, rather young but met the challenges of life almost singlehandedly. Equally, it is true that her two children and sisters were her support systems getting flak for their blind support in whatever she did however controversial. But she never gave up: neither in spirit nor will. The last few years her health was on the decline and she had undergone surgery last year in France. In fact when she agreed to undertake hectic campaigning earlier this year, there were apprehensions about her ability to brave the heat and dust but she stepped out and led from the front.

Delhi will miss Sheila Dikshit and even as tributes continue to pour in, the diminutive lady with a gentle touch and iron will, shall leave an imprint on the Sands of Time.

The writer is a senior Indian journalist, political commentator and columnist of The Independent.

She can be reached at: (kumkum91@gmail.com)