Veteran Congress leader and three-time Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit died of cardiac arrest Saturday. She was 81. Its longest-serving Chief Minister, Dikshit was instrumental in transforming Delhi into a world-class city, earning her national fame and catapulting her to the frontline of the Congress leadership.
She became Chief Minister in 1998 when the Congress was in political wilderness and the organisation in utter disarray. And battling rampant factionalism, Dikshit reigned supreme in Delhi’s politics, spearheading the Congress back to power in 2003 and 2008, becoming a middle-class icon.
But in 2013, just as dramatically as she rose, Dikshit fell, when the change swept Delhi and signalled the rise of Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party. Her defeat in the New Delhi Assembly constituency to Kejriwal and the Congress’s disastrous assembly election was the precursor for the party’s nationwide fall.
But she fought until the end. At age 80, she took over as the president of the Delhi Congress to fight an uphill Lok Sabha poll battle earlier this year.
She didn’t belong to a political family. Politics was not her natural or first choice either. It was a world she was thrust into, but she learnt the ropes, quickly too, from her father-in-law and veteran Congressman Uma Shankar Dikshit.
It was her marriage to Uma Shankar’s son Vinod that changed the course of her life. Though she had seen politics from close quarters as an informal assistant to her ageing father-in-law, her formal entry came in 1984 when Rajiv Gandhi asked her to contest elections from Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh.
In Dikshit’s words, she had felt a surge of excitement followed by apprehension when the Kannauj offer came. But she won and there was no looking back.
A year and a half later, Rajiv inducted her into his ministry as a junior minister for Parliamentary Affairs. Seamlessly, she became a part of the Lutyens power politics.
Dikshit worked with three generations of Gandhis, earning their trust, eventually becoming one of Sonia’s closest confidantes, particularly during Rao’s tenure as Prime Minister. She was part of the factional feud raging in the Congress against Rao, which finally resulted in the formation of the All India Indira Congress (Tiwari), spearheaded by Natwar Singh and Arjun Singh among others. She even contested the 1996 LS elections as a Tiwari Congress candidate from Unnao but returned to the Congress after Sonia entered politics in 1997.
“Just as her husband had changed the trajectory of my life with one phone call in November 1984, Mrs Sonia Gandhi did likewise in 1998. She called me around midnight and asked me to contest the East Delhi Lok Sabha seat. Although I mumbled that I was not familiar with East Delhi, I said I would do it. And that was it,” she said.
But she lost. And perhaps that was a blessing in disguise, for she soon became Delhi’s Chief Minister.
“The next few months revealed that Mrs Sonia Gandhi had plans for Delhi — and as a part of it, for me,” Dikshit wrote.
As Chief Minister, Dikshit changed Delhi’s landscape. While the Congress at the national level was implementing NREGA and other populist schemes, she quietly ushered in reforms like handing over the distribution of power to private players. She wooed the urban middle class with road and transport infrastructure.
In the Congress that took a rural welfare-driven turn at the Centre, Dikshit ruled an urban and aspirational Delhi. Though she won the state three times, she remained virtually decoupled with the national outlook of Congress’s left-leaning outlook during UPA-I and II.
Despite her stature in party, she, too, did not appear keen to influence the national outlook of the party which remained guided by Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council. Ultimately, her political fortunes were weighed down by the performance of the UPA-II government.
With Delhi emerging as the epicentre of the anti-UPA establishment, Dikshit was the first to feel the shock-waves in the 2013 assembly elections before the Congress was drummed out of power in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. And in 2015, the Congress won none of Delhi’s 70 seats.
Two years later, She was called up by the Congress again, this time as the Chief Ministerial candidate for the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections at age 79.
“I must admit I was a bit confused about whether I should take the plunge or not-if I said no, it might be taken to mean that I was not inclined to do my bit for the party. On the other hand, if I said yes, I was not sure what exactly my role would be. Ultimately, loyalty to the party and its leadership prevailed,” she wrote.