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Larger than life

Sheila Dikshit shaped Delhi and people’s lives in significant ways. Her absence is as powerful as was her presence

This is not an obituary of Sheila Dikshit, former chief minister of Delhi for 15 years, who died last month. It’s a story of a journalist’s first meaningful interaction with a powerful politician. It was a professional dealing, no private communications apart from work. And most of the stories I did were highly critical of her regime, policies and initiatives—whether it was the proposed privatisation of Delhi Jal Board that never happened, the Public Distribution System (PDS) scam or the much talked about Commonwealth Games (CWG) scam.

It’s pertinent to mention at the very onset that the documentary proof for many of these stories were sourced using the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005. Delhi was the first state to have its own—the Delhi Right to Information Act was passed on 16 May 2001 and came into force on 2 October 2001—under the leadership of Dikshit, before it became a Union legislation applicable to the rest of the country four years later.

Delhi’s RTI Act was effectively used to hold government accountable by the then RTI activist Arvind Kejriwal, now the incumbent chief minister of Delhi. He has the ability — and the writer is a witness — to read government files like crime thrillers. He used RTI to expose the CWC scam — for that matter proposed privatisation of DJB and a host of other issues. And in the process started an anti-corruption movement, talked about taking democracy to the grassroots, created a political narrative against corruption and then a political party.

Dikshit had many adversaries within the Congress party. This writer has dealt with many DPCC chiefs would openly leak documents to show her in bad light and call her names. But they together were no match for Dikshit’s political prowess. It was Kejriwal who as an RTI activist —thanks to Dikshit’s RTI Act initiative in Delhi — used the legislation to procure bulk of documents to weave a comprehensive narrative against her and went on to become her political nemesis and immediate successor. I know this for sure because one of the
journalists greatly benefitted by Kejriwal supply of government documents procured using RTI for stories was the writer himself.

Perhaps, for this reason, I got to know the incumbent and the former chief ministers of Delhi, namely, Kejriwal and Dikshit. And it’s not wrong to say, that Dikshit had a big role to play in making Kejriwal what he has become.

Never did the difference between Dikshit and the various lieutenant governors (LGs) she worked with ever became a public spectacle, but she did give them all a hard time. That was because of her political stature, which was bigger than the party she belonged to. There was an exception, she famously got along well with BL Joshi, a LG appointed by NDA government under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Dikshit told me on more than one occasion, “I run Delhi on goodwill.” And she was aware that Delhi, because it being the national capital, will never get a status of a full state. But that doesn’t restrain her from calling spade a spade. “DDA is the biggest land mafia in Delhi,” she had told me for an interview.

In her last interview with the writer on April 30, as a Congress contestant from North East Delhi, she talked about how Vajpayee was very cooperative in the larger interest of Delhi—and that the long pending project of Delhi Metro gathering dust was revived and pursued expeditiously. As they say, the rest is history.

She was a powerful woman and her media management was incredible. There was a person in her office who knew most of the journalist and editors, and a call from him to Editors was good enough to kill a story. Many of my stories were killed. But some did see the day of the light. Like a scathing story I did on her alleged role in the CWG scam for the Open Magazine titled ‘Why is nobody talking about Sheila Dikshit’. I was told she was upset about it.

Soon afterwards, I met her at a party hosted by my uncle, who she was friends with from their college days. She looked at me, smiled, walked towards me and said softly, “Nice story! Now everybody is talking about Sheila Dikshit. Thanks!” I forced a smile. I couldn’t make out whether it was a joke or a sort of rebuke. She said as if it was a compliment. I took it as a compliment.

This was the only time she commented to me on my story about her. She would always reply to my calls, even if it was late at night. Most of the time, I met her over breakfast. And there I wouldn’t even have the time to even look at the plate; I’d be busy taking notes while she’d talk and eat, eat and talk, and there were constant interruptions and phone calls. She’d then be reminded of the day’s engagement or politely told that she should get going. “Eat your breakfast,” she’d tell me and wait for me to finish. I’d swallow the food — it was morally burdensome to hold the chief minister back from performing her duties. She knew my predicament, “Relax! Take your time: Have juice, tea, cornflakes!”

There were other occasions when she had time at her disposal, and if you get her talking about her college days, she had a lot to say. She was a connoisseur of sarees. She wore the best of the best, very simple yet elegant cotton sarees and the way she carried herself was admirable. One of the many reasons for her closeness with Sonia Gandhi and Gursharan Kaur, wife of the former prime minister Manmohan Singh, was their love for sarees.

In fact, at one point in time, I wanted to do a story on three most powerful women in India and the saree connection between them. Only Dikshit was willing to speak about it and, therefore, the story was never done. “You give too much credit to the saree, you should also give some credence to who’s wearing it,” she’d say and laugh. She wasn’t joking. Dikshit enjoyed a conversation and liked to speak her mind.

In Dikshit I saw an empowered person, therefore, wasn’t perturbed by what others had to say or write about her, for she was so self-assured. I was in Copenhagen when I received the news of her demise. I was very sad and wondered how much she mattered to me. Some people affect you subconsciously more than you’d ever know it overtly. I returned to Delhi a couple of weeks later. When I landed a thought bugged me: Delhi without Dikshit—it won’t be the same.

She played a formidable role in shaping Delhi as we know it, Kejriwal into a political leader, me as well: my stories over a decade criticising her regime made me a journalist.