More than three years after her demise, Sheila Dikshit continues to be the Congress party’s most bankable leader in Delhi, with the tottering party making her the key face of its campaign for the upcoming elections to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD).
The longest-serving Delhi chief minister, Dikshit had been the CM for consecutive three terms from 1998 to 2013, following which the grand old party has been in political wilderness in the national capital. The Congress had failed to win a single seat in Delhi in the 2015 and 2020 Assembly polls as well as the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
The Congress’s campaign for the December 4 MCD polls is centred on highlighting the times of “Sheila ji’s Delhi”, showcasing the works done on various fronts by the Dikshit regime during its 15-year tenure.
The Dikshit-led Congress was trounced by the then fledgling Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the December 2013 polls, which formed its first government with outside support from the incumbent party.
The Congress lost power in the MCD to the BJP in the 2007 polls, with the saffron party continuing its hold over the civic body so far.
It was under the Dikshit government that the MCD was trifurcated in 2011, although she had mooted this proposal years earlier during her second term as the CM, which was strongly opposed by the then Congress-led corporation leaders.
This year’s election will be held for the reunified MCD after the BJP-led Centre reversed the Congress regime’s decision earlier this year.
Struggling to revive itself while reeling under factional feuds, the Congress has decided to fall back on Dikshit’s legacy in its campaign for the MCD polls, projecting the vast infrastructure built in Delhi under the Dikshit government.
Last week, the party flagged off 14 vans marked with Dikshit’s photograph for campaigning across the city. Like the AAP, the Congress has said it will focus on Delhi’s garbage problem and corruption gripping the MCD if voted to power.
The Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee (DPCC) president, Anil Kumar Chaudhry, launched the theme song of the party’s campaign for the MCD polls. “The song reflects the achievements of the Congress party during its 15-year rule, and how the Aam Aadmi Party and BJP together polluted the ‘Congress Wali Delhi’ not only through toxic air and water, but also through its divisive politics, as corruption became the byword for all their activities,” he said. “The theme song will be played door-to-door to highlight the achievements of the Sheila Dikshit-led Congress government’s development-oriented governance, and expose the corruption, hollow promises and wrong doings of the BJP and Kejriwal governments, at the MCD and in the Delhi government over the last 15 and 8 years, respectively.”
Some Congress insiders, however, believe that Dikshit was not given her due by the party in the last few years of her life. After losing to Kejriwal in the New Delhi constituency by over 25,000 votes in the 2013 polls, she was called “short-sighted”. “Many in the party believed that she had underestimated AAP and had ruined Congress’s chances by not countering the new party’s narrative strongly. At the time, no one had thought that a party formed a year ago could win more than a couple of seats in its first election but she being the party leader was mostly blamed,” said a party leader.
The Congress’s experience with an AAP government was also bitter despite its outside support as Kejriwal resigned from the CM’s post within 49 days following a tussle over the introduction of the Jan Lokpal Bill, which was the AAP’s main poll pledge.
Considered close to Dikshit earlier, senior leader Ajay Maken was then appointed as the DPCC chief. Over the next few years, the rift between them deepened with the two leaders refraining from even sharing stage at various events.
“When AAP came back with a sweeping majority of 67 out of 70 seats in the 2015 polls, Dikshit seemed bitter and infighting within the party was rife and those considered close to her started to look for other avenues. Then, a year later, Congress pushed her to contest the 2017 polls from Uttar Pradesh (as its CM face) from where she had won the Kannauj parliamentary seat in 1984. She was initially unwilling but the party finally managed to persuade her,” said another party leader.
It was said to have come as a shock to Dikshit when the Congress had subsequently decided to join hands with the then incumbent Samajwadi Party for the UP polls. Close on the heels of this announcement, she withdrew herself as the party’s CM face, saying it was time for the younger generation to take charge.
A few months after the Congress’s debacle in UP polls, Dikshit’s confidant Arvinder Singh Lovey joined the BJP, although he returned to the party within a year saying he was a “misfit” in the saffron camp.
Then began several rounds of mending fences. Dikshit and Maken held a joint press conference in February 2018, indicating that they have buried the hatchet and that senior party leaders were again willing to work together.
The Congress turned to Dikshit once again by appointing her as the Delhi Congress chief in early 2019 and later asking her to contest the Lok Sabha polls from North East Delhi. She had previously contested from East Delhi (of which North East Delhi was a part before delimitation) and lost in 1998. According to sources, Dikshit was unwilling considering her health as well as her previous experience in UP. She was, however, convinced by the top party leadership. This came after the Congress’s long negotiation with the AAP regarding a pre-poll alliance for the 2019 general elections, which Dikshit was not in favour of, sources said, as she called Kejriwal “unreliable”.
Dikshit lost at the hands of the BJP’s Manoj Tiwari, with the saffron party bagging all seven Lok Sabha seats in Delhi in a repeat of its 2014 performance.
Within months of her defeat, Dikshit returned to the drawing board to launch a fresh bid to revive the Congress in Delhi. She however passed away in July 2019 following a cardiac arrest.