Sheila Dikshit was an extraordinary politician and administrator, who during her 15-year-long stint as chief minister, transformed the city-state into a modern metropolis. Marriage into a political family close to the Nehru-Gandhis gave her an opening in politics, enabled her rise to office and helped stave off rivals in the Congress. But her reputation as a politician loved across class, caste, religious, linguistic and political divides and as an administrator admired by both citizens and the bureaucracy was very much her own achievement. Under her leadership, Delhi became a truly urban space with public amenities and services that aspire to higher standards.
Dikshit was the rare Indian politician who had a clear vision of urban governance. She rose above the petty interests that directed Delhi’s development concerns and forced the city to think big. She took on entrenched lobbies and interest groups to reform urban administration and overhaul the city’s infrastructure, especially its roads, public transport and electricity distribution. Though prodded by a Supreme Court directive, she was convinced that public transport in the national capital needed to run on CNG, a less polluting fuel compared to diesel, and oversaw the difficult transition. However, another well-intentioned attempt to privilege public buses over private transport through the BRT project was defeated by flaws in the plan and vested interests. She made sure that the expansion of the Delhi Metro was not derailed by political or bureaucratic mischief. The odd off-key remark about the burden of migration apart, she recognised that Delhi was a city of migrants, was likely to remain so, and it needed, therefore, to cultivate a cosmopolitan civic culture, which reflected its diversity. This understanding underlined her vision for the city. Incidentally, Dikshit was crafting her urban governance agenda against the instincts of the Congress, which, at that time, was focussed on outreach to the rural and the poor.
Dikshit’s non-combative but persuasive style of functioning helped her to get work done with minimum fuss. She skilfully negotiated with the multiple central ministries that had a say in the state administration to extract the best deal for Delhi. Her ability to moderate the edges while dealing with political rivals earned her not just their respect but also their cooperation in governing Delhi. Corruption scandals related to the 2010 Commonwealth Games and a decline in the law and order situation scarred her record. The civic politics she had empowered through the Bhagidari scheme, for instance, turned out to be her nemesis. The Anna Hazare movement and the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party cost her not just office but even her own assembly seat in the 2013 assembly election. Through it all, Dikshit’s party was a reluctant admirer of her popularity and her record as an administrator. The Congress ignored her credentials for a national role and confined her to state politics. Delhi’s gain was the Centre’s — and also the Congress’ — loss.