In the death of former chief minister of Delhi, Sheila Dikshit, the media has lost a good friend. Though she was unwell for a while, her end came rather soon. Just a day before her death, she was battling it out with the central leadership on how to revive the Congress party after the numbing loss in the 2019 elections. Dikshit contested the Lok Sabha elections and seemed like a winner, but she suffered the same fate as that of other Congress candidates when she lost by a big margin. Indeed, her stunning second loss in the last six years was no evidence of her waning popularity or the abundant love people had for her.
Despite being in the opposition, thousands of her admirers came to pay homage to a leader who was cultured, soft-spoken and displayed considerable stamina and patience listening to the problems of her party men or the people of Delhi. She actually once stood to stop the bulldozers which had come to demolish a slum in Delhi. After her death, commentators and political leaders have tried to limit her contribution to building flyovers and the metro, but what Sheila Dikshit did was more fundamental, permanent and long-term. She set new standards of democratic and transparent urban governance for not just Delhi, but for the entire country, by giving primacy to fighting vehicular pollution or involving residents in policy-making.
Dikshit, alumina of Delhi’s Miranda House, went beyond brick and mortar and created liberal and open spaces of great refinement and sensibility to promote classical and performing arts that recaptured the glorious and plural past of the capital, and the entire country’s pluralist cultural diversity.
Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Park, the Central Park, the Dilli Haats, university campuses, and various auditoriums near Mandi House in Delhi became the open-air theatres for legendary and young performers, sometimes till the early hours of the morning, whose renditions were not just meant for the ‘Lutyens’ elite’ but for ordinary people, students, middle class citizens and the masses. It could be classical music or Urdu poetry, the repertoire was vast and nuanced. And all this for free — a collective, secular and democratic shared space to elevate the mind and soul courtesy the finest performers and artists residing all across the Indian landscape, resurrecting the great syncretic cultural traditions of India. For artists, Sheila Dixit became a true patron of arts and culture.
She was not just a patron of arts, but an active aficionado who sat through the entire programme herself, often on the grass under a tree on a full moon night in a park with a simple and aesthetic platform for the performer marked as the stage. In a non-elitist sense, the refined sensibilities of Sheila Dikshit would be deeply missed.
It was her relationship with the media that should be an important lesson for politicians and bureaucracy in a democracy, especially in the current era where only loyalists are patronised. She always had her office and home open for journalists — young or old. She would greet unknown journalists with a warmth and affection so familiar with her personality. She never had airs or carried any aura of arrogance. She was easily accessible and ready for difficult questions, even sharp criticism. She took criticism well with an open and flexible heart and was always forthcoming on giving information.
Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Park, the Central Park, the Dilli Haats, university campuses, and various auditoriums neart Mandi House in Delhi became the open air theatres for legendary and young performers, sometimes till the early hours of the morning, whose renditions were not just meant for the ‘Lutyens’ elite’ but for ordinary people, students, middle class citizens and the masses. And all this for free — a collective, secular and democratic shared space to elevate the mind and soul courtesy the finest performers and artists residing all across the Indian landscape, resurrecting the great syncretic cultural traditions of India.
Dikshit was cognizant of the role that small and medium newspapers and magazines play in shaping public opinion and hence the Directorate of Publicity (DIP) under her charge gave advertisements liberally to them. They were not discriminated on account of their ideology or their editorial position, unlike other regimes which favoured media organisations with big brother corporate status.
Sheila Dikshit earned her spurs as a politician watching and later helping her father in law, former Congress President, Uma Shankar Dikshit. She became a minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s office during his stint as prime minister and thereafter she acquitted herself as the parliamentary affairs minister.
In 1998, she became the chief minister of Delhi and got down to changing the face of the ‘city-state’ in a manner that had not been attempted elsewhere. Before she got down to finding a solution, sometimes painful, Delhi was an extremely polluted, unplanned and difficult city, almost chaotic, with routine traffic jams. She executed some of the Supreme Court orders to bring in green fuel and relocated industries. Both these moves found considerable opposition from the entrenched lobbies, but she measured up to the court’s strict deadlines. Delhi’s air cleaned up due to these initiatives till other extraneous factors dirtied it again many years later.
Her astute administrative capabilities, her educated refinement, and her political flexibility using the politics of consensus gave her a national profile. Many observers actually believed that she was prime ministerial material, and fit to be the Congress president.
Indeed, the small islands of green forests she has built all around Delhi’s flyovers, and the tree-lined roads and parks, transcended the elitism of a green and lush Lutyen’s Delhi meant only for the VVIPs. Ordinary people, therefore, as in the suburbs of East Delhi, could enjoy these little islands of green landscapes with their fresh breathing spaces. These spaces still exist, like a thick and dense micro forest, and so do the trees, now tall and big, many full of seasonal flowers.
For 15 years, she had a dream run in Delhi till two agitations blighted her term. First was the spontaneous agitation after the brutal rape of Nirbhaya. Though the Delhi government had nothing to do with law and order, the reiteration of her government’s limitations was held against her. Second, she was sucked into a vortex of accusations leveled against the Congress government for squirreling funds from the Commonwealth Games (CWG).
It was her relationship with the media that should be an important lesson for politicians and bureaucracy in a democracy, especially in the current era where only loyalists are patronised. She always had her office and home open for journalists — young or old. She never had airs or carried any aura of arrogance. She was easily accessible and ready for difficult questions, even sharp criticism.
The agitation by Anna Hazare-led India Against Corruption (IAC), backed, infiltrated and patronised by the Sangh Parivar, cut very close to the bone. Her position was weakened by an inquiry conducted by the then prime minister Manmohan Singh. An unintended consequence of the report was that it hurt her more even while Delhi hosted an excellent Commonwealth Games. The massive spend on Delhi, changed the face of Delhi.
Arvind Kejriwal, who rode to power after Congress’s colossal loss, showed up to be antithetical to his predecessor. Indeed, he took full advantage of the patronage of Hindutva forces to push the Congress, then in power, to the edge. In power, in the initial phase, he seemed quarrelsome, conspiratorial, rigid and did not have the refinement of Sheila Dikshit. For the 15 years that she was in power, she found amicable solutions on contentious issues that surfaced with the central government on jurisdiction. Kejriwal, on the contrary, had a running battle with the Centre that hurt the interests of the people of this half-state. However, it can be argued that the Atal Behari Vajpayee dispensation during her time was in stark contrast to the current regime in conduct and behaviour.
Surely, Sheila Dikshit would be missed as a liberal democrat, a great and visionary administrator, a symbol of urban modernity, a refined connoisseur of arts and culture, and an affable and amiable person with a big heart full of warmth and generosity.