A woman of many colours and many contrasts. A rare gem of a politician with a heart, and a woman with the iron will of a powerful administrator. A workaholic who was an excellent homemaker. A leader who did not shy away from making a cup of her special tea for her guests.
I have always found it difficult to define Sheila Dikshit ji. She was, truly, a woman of substance, and the kind of politician you could only dream of, until you met her.
I met her for the first time nearly 40 years ago, with her husband, Vinod, son of veteran Congress leader and former cabinet minister and governor, Uma Shankar Dikshit. Her husband, an IAS officer, was a remarkable man, but I did not find Sheila ji any less, even though she was, as some would say, just an ordinary homemaker then.
And my last encounter with her was at the CWC meeting on May 25, where she was, as were all senior party leaders, extremely concerned about the way things were going in the Congress post the shocking Lok Sabha election results. “We must do something to bring the party back on track Amarinder,” I remember her saying, as we walked down the corridor of the AICC. I did not know then that these would be the last words she would speak to me.
Between these two meetings was a long journey of nearly four decades — of shared moments and of close encounters (of the very warm kind). We met often during these years — either when she came to Punjab (incidentally, she hailed from Kapurthala) or when I visited Delhi. Most of these were not accidental meetings. I sought her out to talk to her, as I always found in her the guidance and the support needed to negotiate tough challenges and take difficult decisions. “Milna hai Sheila ji,” I would say to her the moment she was on the line. “Haan aa jao,” she would be quick to respond.
Always forthcoming, always warm, always ready to help, Sheila ji was always there for me — like an elder sister who had taken it upon herself to take care of her younger sibling. That was the bond we shared, and one which I will always cherish.
Since she has passed away, I have heard so many good words about her. That she was full of life, warm, soft-spoken, affable, accessible, and so on. Looking back, I feel each of these descriptions matched her to a T. But I also feel there was much more to her — something which was such an integral part of her personality that it defies description. I am not really a spiritual person, yet I sometimes feel Sheila ji had a deeply spiritual demeanour, which made her universally loved, respected and revered.
Despite being a hardcore politician, the three-time chief minister of Delhi was above politics, as evident in the fond tributes to her from leaders cutting across party lines. Despite being 81, she was an ageless soul, as manifest in the love showered on her by the young and old alike. And despite being ambitious, she was completely selfless, as could be seen in the way she helped each and every one who came to her for help of any kind.
That is why, as I said earlier, I always found Sheila ji a wonderful study in contrasts. A woman who gave generously, without asking for anything in exchange. And a woman who, led by her vision and hard work, came a long way from being the respected “bahu ji” (as all visitors to Uma Shankar Dikshit ji’s house would fondly address her) to being the beloved “grandma” of politics.
It was her vision that looked beyond the challenges of today to shape the future of Delhi as befitting the capital of India. It was her love for the people whom she represented that transformed the city from being just an archaic legacy into a vibrant, dynamic and contemporary mosaic of progress and development. And it was her commitment to her party that made the Congress in Delhi a formidable force for many long years.
She was soft, yet so full of life, it was almost difficult to reconcile the two sides of her. But the way she herself had blended these two sides into her personality lent her a charismatic appeal.
I, for one, could never resist that appeal, which drew me to her doorstep every now and then — to seek her out for advice or simply for her scintillating company. She was knowledgeable, and could carry on a serious conversation for hours. At the same time, she was much fun to be with, and someone I could let my guard down with, freely and without worrying about the consequences.
Today, as I look back, I can see her smiling down at me, dressed immaculately, as always, in her graceful saris. I can see her distinguished look, a perfect foil to the twinkle in her eyes. I see her benign and loveable persona standing by me, ready to hold my hand if I so much as seemed to stumble.
That, Sheila ji, is the way I remember you, and will always do. I will miss you, more than I can express in words.
The writer is chief minister of Punjab and leader of the Congress.