As Delhi’s longest-serving chief minister, Sheila Dikshit’s biggest contribution was to make a rapidly expanding national capital, with its burgeoning population, more habitable for its citizenry. But efficient governance was not her only calling card in the 15 years (1998-2013) she presided over Delhi’s fortunes. A consummate politician, she overcame the limited powers she had as CM and maintained as cordial a relationship with a BJP prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, as with his Congress successor, Manmohan Singh. Equally adroitly, she navigated her way through the minefield that the Congress in Delhi was at the time.
Interestingly, as her memoir, Citizen Delhi: My Times, My Life, reveals, Dikshit came to politics through a quirk of fate. A well-educated, upper middle class girl who grew up in the 1940s/’50s, interested in handlooms and terracotta pottery, she had, at one time, toyed with the idea of becoming a teacher. But Fate decreed otherwise.
From the closing years of colonial rule, through the heady days of post-Independence India, to the turbulence of the many political changes that followed, right up to the present, Citizen Delhi is a sweeping portrait of a life and a career, mixing, in equal measure, the personal and the political.
If Dikshit’s liberal Punjabi family made her growing up years comfortable, even idyllic, marriage to an IAS officer took her to the wilds of Uttar Pradesh, where she saw, at first hand, a free India grappling with ruling its own people. The premature death of her beloved husband, Vinod Dikshit, at 48, brought her life to a standstill, but not for long, as she plunged deeper into politics she had been an MP by then for three years.
The social history of an extended Punjabi family in post-Independence India, living in an unspoilt Lutyens’ Delhi, with its proximity to the major figures of the independence movement, comes alive in Dikshit’s recounting of her early years. But the heart of the book is the section that deals with her political apprenticeship with her father-in-law, a well known freedom-fighter and senior Congress leader, Uma Shankar Dikshit. Clearly, in his daughter-in-law, he found a worthy student to groom. Those years of tutelage not only served Sheila Dikshit well in later years, but, at the time, also gave her an insider’s view of the Congress, such as, during the events that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984.
That was also the year she contested a Lok Sabha election for the first time from Kanauj in UP—at Rajiv Gandhi’s urging—and won. Her victory led to a berth in the Union council of ministers. A throwaway remark she makes in that chapter on her campaign confirms the role of the RSS in the elections held in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s death. “Party workers...told us that they had heard RSS workers...say that they would vote for the Congress this once in the memory of Indira Gandhi, a leader who gave up her life for the country. VHP leader, the late Ashok Singhal, whose family was known to us, sent word that there was no need for me to worry about the elections.”
Sadly, for the reader, there are very few more such revelations, even though Dikshit often hovers on the edge: she makes clear her disapproval of the way the 1984 anti-Sikh riots were dealt with, but she doesn’t expand on it; as a member of the Congress (Tiwari), formed as a Sonia Gandhi support group while P.V. Narasimha Rao was prime minister, she doesn’t delve into too many details; and while she obliquely expresses her concerns about the future of the Congress, she leaves much unsaid.
In a companion volume to her memoirs, a coffee table book, Dilli Meri Dilli: Before And After 1998, Dikshit’s selection of photographs spotlights not just many of the city’s beautiful monuments but, more importantly, the flyovers, the metro rail system, the CNG buses, even her addressing meetings of the bhagidari scheme. These are interspersed with endorsements of the improvements she made to the city as chief minister by well-known persons, who include journalist Mark Tully, musician Amjad Ali Khan, environmentalist Sunita Narain, conservationist Ratish Nanda and ‘Metro Man’ E. Sreedharan.
The engagingly and elegantly written memoir and the handsomely produced coffee-table book, taken together, would suggest Dikshit is not ready as yet to hang up her political boots.