Sheila ji, Madam CM, Mrs Dikshit, Madam ji, was so many things to so many people. At least a million lives were personally touched by her.
It was on Delhi’s bus number 10, from Delhi University to Connaught Place, that Vinod Dikshit proposed to Sheila. Sheila was an educated, suave Punjabi girl from Miranda House, then doing her MA and Vinod, her classmate, the only son of Uma Shankar Dikshit, was studying for the UPSC exams and came from one of the most prominent Congress families of the time. It is almost like a plot from a Basu Chatterjee film.
Their marriage was to lay the foundation of a remarkable political figure, whose journey and active political work was coterminous with a long span of the Congress itself.
Delhi’s cosmopolitanism, its sense of being “modern” and “inclusive”, owes much to Sheila Dikshit’s remarkable 15-year tenure as its chief minister. But she was much more than just the office.
Sheila was known in political circles as Bahu ji, during the 1960s and 1970s, when she was being groomed by her father-in-law. Uma Shankar Dikshit, Congress Treasurer and MP, was one of the key poles in the party. He was close to Jawaharlal Nehru, then Indira Gandhi and also to Rajiv Gandhi. But it was 46-year-old Sheila who became a minister in the Rajiv Gandhi government in the Prime Minister’s Office. She won the Kannauj seat in 1984, taking ownership of the Uma Shankar Dikshit legacy in Uttar Pradesh.
Her time as a minister was followed by a period of estrangement with the Congress as Sheila, along with many other stalwarts, left the party when P V Narasimha Rao secured complete control. She and some others returned only when Sonia Gandhi took charge as the Congress president. Her attempts to win a seat from Delhi — East Delhi — resulted in a loss by 45,000 votes. But the Congress president decided to take a gamble on Sheila as the chief minister in 1998, and that is when things were stirred up.
Condemned as an “outsider” by the entrenched Delhi players, no one gave her a hope in hell in the capital, which was long seen as a city of the Jana Sangh. The BJP had held sway over the rest of the Hindi belt for years, but Sheila was able to secure Delhi for the Congress thrice in a row, a dramatically symbolic feat.
It was the popularity of Sheila Dikshit in the capital, Y S Rajasekhara Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, S M Krishna in Karnataka and its success in Maharashtra that allowed the Congress to showcase itself as a party that had strong regional leaders. The Congress could project a sense of the city and people that spoke of both infrastructure and inclusion, allowing it to push both terms — “United” and “Progressive” — in the alliance it led. It is in this nationally-significant signalling that the Sheila Dikshit story became much more than the story of just seven MPs from a half-state.
Delhi, in a decade, became the city of dreams, where more migrants arrived, than in Mumbai. Soon, in the second decade of the 21st century, with urban politics punching well above its numerical weight due to the exponential rise of migration, information and smartphones, what Delhi thought today became what the nation aspired to tomorrow.
It is no surprise that the Anna Hazare-driven India Against Corruption movement picked Delhi to set itself up. The city had become the centre of India. In 2013, with numerous agitations gaining traction in Delhi and beyond, the Dikshit magic wore off. Sheila Dikshit described to Karan Thapar how a week-and-a-half before the election, she crossed Arvind Kejriwal while campaigning in South Delhi and got the sense that people were now bored. Now, “badlo” or change was the mood.
She lost her seat but never a person to be pushed back or refuse a challenge, Dikshit agreed to be the CM “face” of the Congress in UP in 2017, something that fell flat once the Congress suddenly tied up with the Samajwadi Party.
Then in 2019, again, Dikshit was brought in to try and revive the Congress story in Delhi. And while she lost the North-East seat, the Congress managed to be number two in a state where its vote share had seen a dramatic fall after the 2013 loss.
But despite the losses, what Sheila stood for carried the day for her in this small but difficult state. What she represented — something for everybody, and a sense of confidence that defeat could not drown — is something, perhaps, her party should draw from as it faces its deepest crisis in a long time.
Sheila describes with some humour in her memoirs how her mother-in-law lodged her in the store-room with pots and pans when she went visiting, soon after their marriage. She always managed to emerge from the storeroom, sparkling and pleasant, and with a quiet resolve. Rest in Peace, Ma’am.