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Calm confidence

At age 81, Sheila Diskhit is upbeat about facing yet another big challenge in her political career: resurrection of the Congress party in Delhi

Sheila Dikshit was busy at home on the last day of April, organising her team to face one more tough challenge in her political life spanning four decades.

Her decision to contest from the North East parliamentary seat has infused new energy in the party cadres, many of whom have assembled at her residence in Nizamuddin East. Her living room, with has a glass wall on the far end overlooking Humayun’s Tomb, is crammed with party workers. There are party office bearers from all over the country to support her cause, as far as from Wayanad—where Congress president Rahul Gandhi is a contestant.

Dikshit is leading from the front. She singlehandedly convinced the Congress high command to refrain from becoming a junior partner to an alliance with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi. She opted for resurrecting the party that ruled Delhi under her leadership for 15 years, than being lured into settling for some short-term political gains. She told Rahul Gandhi that an alliance with AAP will harm the Congress party.

Dikshit’s political nemesis and her successor as the Delhi Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, accused the Congress of helping Prime Minister Narendra Modi by dividing anti-BJP votes, not only in Delhi but also in UP and other states.

Since Dikshit convinced her party to go solo, there’s a lot of pressure on her to put up a good show, as winning the North East Delhi seat is a matter of prestige for the Congress party. In these initial days, the party is pooling resources and putting them at her disposal.

No stone will be left unturned to ensure Dikshit’s triumph. The newest general secretary of the Congress party, Priyanka Gandhi, will do a road show on the evening of May 5 in support of Dikshit. Congress President Rahul Gandhi will also hold a rally. Dikshit spent an hour in a closed room discussing the modality of a road show by Priyanka Gandhi, while the number of party workers keep growing in her living room.

Her house is spacious, white walls adorned with the choicest paintings, wooden furniture and glass-topped tables. Now it’s transformed into the party office. When there is no space left for people to stand in the living room, they move out.

A large portrait of  Vinod Dikshit, Sheila’s husband, hangs on the wall behind the glass-top dining table. An IAS officer in the Uttar Pradesh cadre, he died some 30 years ago. He was son of former Bihar chief minister and freedom fighter Uma Shankar Diskhit, who mentored Sheila in politics.

Her family is managing her election effort along with her trusted aide for many years, Pawan Khera. Her son and former MP from East Delhi Sandeep and daughter Latika, addressed by party workers as ‘Bhaiya’ and ‘Didi’ respectively, are proactively involved in the electioneering.

Latika escorts her mother to the living room where the latter spends a few minutes interacting with the party workers. Later, Latika is seen assigning duties and requesting party workers to put in their best, stressing that this is “no ordinary constituency.” She is assisted by Amrita Dhawan, former NSUI president, who tells the workers that unless they are ready to make an all-out effort, now is the time to withdraw.

Finally, the former CM settles down for a short interview with Patriot. Her mild manner hides a resolute will.  Dikshit says that she earned a lot of goodwill when she ran Delhi for 15 years.  “I must say that I’m humbly proud of what I have done (as Delhi chief minister) for 15 years — changed the face of Delhi. It was great and a welcome opportunity and I enjoyed every moment of it.”

She feels that Delhi is the pride of the nation. She understands that statehood might not be a possibility for Delhi, because it’s not an “ordinary state, is also the national capital and the seat of national power, there’s the diplomatic enclave and Supreme Court.” About the nature of politics at this juncture, she feels it has become very “combative.”

In contrast, she recollects that nearly the whole of her first term out of three as chief minister was during the tenure of Atal Bihari Vajpayee as Prime Minister. The Delhi Metro file was collecting dust. “I went to the Prime Minister (Vajpayee) and said, see, the file of Delhi Metro is lying locked in a cupboard. Why can’t Delhi have a Metro? I must say, he not only agreed, he acted upon it.”

Delhi Metro is Dikshit’s legacy to Delhi. And this kind of bonhomie between a BJP prime minister and a Delhi CM from an Opposition party seems to be a fairy tale in the present context, where AAP and BJP trade barbs regularly and get personal in their criticism.

Outside, cars continue to stream in and party workers clad in white mill about in large numbers. Dikshit goes about her business calmly in this commotion, everyone being served cold water to keep their tempers down. She can be heard cancelling her appointment with women journalists for an informal chat at Indian Women’s Press Corps. Delhi’s heat is one of the many challenges her camp has to face in this election.