It’s now a cliche to say that Delhi as a modern city — that we know today — is because of Sheila Dikshit, the chief minister for 15 years.
But, how she did it is something worth remembering. She was a tactful politician demolishing her opponents, an administrator on a mission, and a liberal at heart.
As a reporter who covered her city, her government and her office for three different publications, early in my career, here’s a tale to tell. In March 2001, I was working on a story investigating corruption allegations against one of her ministers. I visited his residence for his version, and the minister, after listening to my questions, started abusing and pushing me till his personal staff restrained him. That evening, I accompanied two of my editors in the publication I worked for to meet Chief Minister Dikshit.
“I apologise for his behaviour, beta,” she told me in the drawing room of her Mathura Road residence. I don’t remember her exact words, but she assured action, and asked me to keep this within us.
The paper published the story, with a box on the exchange I had with the minister. Over the coming weeks, no action was taken. About nine months later, the minister was dropped from her cabinet for non-performance.
That was classic Sheila Dikshit — no nonsense, getting the work done, but tactfully, without rocking the boat.
Between 1998 and 2004, when she had a government from a different party at the Centre, she worked the levers with BJP ministers in the Union Cabinet and the bureaucracy with a sense of purpose.
Though initially tagged an “outsider” — she was veteran Congressman Uma Shankar Dikshit’s daughter-in-law — she took to city politics like fish to water.
Unsurprisingly, opposition in Delhi came not from her rivals, but her own partymen. Many Congress stalwarts, from Subhash Chopra to Chaudhary Prem Singh, Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler to Ram Babu Sharma and in later years Ajay Maken, went from protege to bete noire to comrade. But she almost always outplayed them in the game of political chess. At several moments, including late-night confabulations in the early 2000s when Ashok Gehlot was in charge of Delhi, dissenters campaigned against her. But every time she was called to 10, Janpath, the high command’s final verdict would be in her favour.
Similarly, she either co-opted the opposition in the BJP or outplayed them — Delhi BJP MLAs were at the time branded “loyal opposition” as they would hardly ever push the government to a corner. And these were no ordinary politicians, but big guns like Madan Lal Khurana, Sahib Singh Verma and Vijay Malhotra.
She made her mark as an administrator early, implementing two of her biggest accomplishments in the first term itself. Pushed by the Supreme Court, she — along with Maken and transport secretary Sindhushree Khullar — got the entire public transport fleet from diesel/petrol to CNG from 2002 onwards. Chaos ensued, with queues at CNG stations and lack of buses, but a coordinated approach with petroleum minister Ram Naik and road transport minister B C Khanduri helped her pull it off.
She was also able to get Delhi’s power distribution privatised, from Delhi Vidyut Board to two private firms, BSES and Tata Power. In both cases, there were allegations of favouring private players, but she remained unscathed.
But her signature contribution remains the infrastructure projects built under her watch, including the Delhi Metro, for which she collaborated with E Sreedharan. As a Delhi government official once told me, “When the history of Delhi will be written, just like Shahjahan (for Shahjahanabad) and Edward Lutyens (Lutyens’ Delhi), you will see Sheila Dikshit’s name.” As a sceptical beat reporter in 2006, I had laughed then. Today, I wonder.
The liberal democrat
Besides being a hands-on chief minister, Dikshit remained accessible and affable to journalists. Her first floor office in Delhi secretariat was freely accessible — her officers interacted with media every day, and ministers and bureaucrats were always up for meeting over a cup of tea.
As a reporter covering her government at The Indian Express, one could always get through on the phone, if not in person. When she knew I was working on a tricky story, she employed a classic tactic. I would call in the evening and leave a message at her residence. She would return the call the next morning at 7 am and say, “Yes beta, you wanted to speak to me?” The paper would have carried the story, but she would never mention it.
And though there were times her officials would call journalists to complain, access to her was never restricted.
Once, at The Indian Express, I got a scoop on the Delhi budget two days before it was to be presented. After the first story was published, her finance minister called and asked me not to report on the second one, citing secrecy of the budget. But, the paper went ahead and printed the stories. Even as the BJP sought a CBI inquiry, she remained unflappable. Officials later told me the CBI had tried to find how I got the papers, but she never asked me to give up my source.