The first of a two-part series.
Sheila Dikshit has always enjoyed an unusual equation with the Gandhi family, particularly the siblings, Priyanka and Rahul. In the purest vein of Congress lore - which can be neither confirmed nor denied - this esteem is traced back to her role as facilitator and mediator at the time of Priyanka's marriage to Robert Vadra, which initially did not find favour with Sonia Gandhi.
She is the only one among the Congress old guard, which is rapidly losing influence as Rahul's team takes charge, who appears to command the party Number 2's affections.
Her proximity to the Gandhi family began with Indira, who was impressed with the articulation and efficiency of party veteran Uma Shankar Dikshit's daughter-in-law and political assistant (her civil servant husband had little interest in politics). Rajiv Gandhi gave her a ticket from Kannauj and later made her minister of state in the Prime Minister's Office. But then, most of the Congress top leadership can claim an equivalent level of intimacy.
What set her apart was her stint in the Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust during the PV Narasimha Rao years, when Sonia was in seclusion (a job she took after Rajiv denied her the Kanpur ticket in 1991). Sheila kept a low-profile as the soft interface between Rajiv's widow and the non-political world.
After Sonia became Congress president in 1998, she was desperately short of friends and inducted Sheila as her Lok Sabha candidate from East Delhi - an election she lost. Her reward was charge of the Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee, with six months to prepare for Assembly elections.
Fifteen years later, battered by scams, the bus rape incident and Anna Hazare, Sheila may make history by leading the Congress into a fourth term - or she might fade behind a miasma of corruption charges. Is Rahul Gandhi correct in claiming, "Dilli ko badla hai. Jo Dilli kayi saal pehle thi woh ab badal chuki hai," and will it win her another public endorsement? Will the Aam Aadmi Party put a period to the Sheila chapter, or is it in cahoots with her in an elaborate split-vote strategy to contain the BJP? Is the sharp fall in the number of aspirants for Congress tickets, from 5,000 in 2008 to 1,500 today, indicative of her declining popularity? Or will she win yet again, only to have New Delhi MP Ajay Maken snatch the fruits of victory from under her nose? The first fortnight of December will answer all these questions.
The gauntlets of 2013
For the first time in three full terms, Sheila Dixit encounters a wave of anti-incumbency. When political pundits speak of anti-incumbency, they usually mean the 'bsp' or 'bijli-sadak-pani' factor. Power, roads and water are the triple test of a state government's performance, and no amount of welfarism mitigates these core concerns. In Delhi, there's an additional and overriding factor: land.
For a decade-and-a-half, Sheila Dikshit has struggled with power and water shortages, inadequate roads and public transport, garbage and sewage disposal and most of all, pressure on land by an ever-growing army of migrants. In the 15 years since 1998, the city's population has gone up from 12.8 million to 16.7 million, peak power demand from 2,200 megawatts to 5,028 megawatts and the number of motor vehicles from 3.2 million to 7.4 million.
Without the luxury of forward planning, she has been in reactive mode, doing just enough to stave off collapse. Often, she has been goaded willy-nilly into action by the Supreme Court, from greening public transport with CNG to replacing killer Bluelines with low-floor buses and sealing unauthorised constructions.
She's been lucky, reaping windfall gains from E Sreedharan's no-fuss delivery of a metro network, plentiful water from the Ganga and a Rs 84,000-crore development package for the Commonwealth Games. She's also been shamelessly populist, regularizing unauthorised colonies by the hundreds and handing out cash subsidies like candy.
In a political world peopled with didis, behenjis, bhais, mamas and ammas, Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit is the feisty grandmother. The image has endeared her to voters of all ages for 15 years. They loved the grandmotherly look, which she cultivated long before she actually became one with the birth of son Sandeep and daughter Latika's children, Tara and Afia (both of whom are enrolled at Delhi's school for children of bureaucrats, Sanskriti).
She dresses to accentuate that image, with minimum jewellery and understated accessories. She likes saris in natural fibres and has a preference for pastel shades, especially beige. She has passed on the penchant for understated dressing to both her children (Sandeep sports gold ear studs, but claims that's for reasons of health).
Working women once loved the fact that Sheila was a bit of a swinger. A Miranda House girl at a time when it was the premier women's college in Delhi University, her romance with a UP brahmin (she's a Sikh from Kapurthala) was the kind of thing expected from a product of 'MH'.
Fond of 60s musicians like Harry Belafonte and the Beatles, she also enjoys Indian classical and ghazals. At family get-togethers, which she thoroughly enjoys, Sheila is the life and soul of the party, urging others to get into the mood.
Her time has also been marked by many failures, from the never-ending saga of assaults on women in the capital, to the 300 per cent increase in power tariff post-privatisation, to the traffic disaster that was the bus rapid transit corridor (BRT). Development has been delivered in small doses, with some sectors, like health and education, all but ignored. After three full terms of crisis mangement, she is tired and it shows. Not just in her failing health and patchy memory, but in the lack of will to address the implosion of Delhi.
Sheila seems ready to move on, perhaps to bigger and better things, perhaps to retirement.
Rahul Gandhi's overt fondness for "Sheila aunty" spontaneously breeds conjecture that she will be his nominee for Prime Minister in 2014, if he decides against taking on the job himself. In the event, of course, of the UPA securing a third term and Dikshit a fourth.
What's self-evident is that Sheila 4.0 faces several drawbacks that did not exist in 1998. First, her health. She has a history of heart ailments, having undergone three procedures in the last 12 years, the last less than a year ago. She hasn't had a good year, with bouts of fever and surgery for a sinus infection.
Her taste in food has always been simple; she likes the proverbial dal-chawal and lauki-torai meals. In this decade the menu's gotten even simpler. Breakfast is likely to be a handful of sprouts and roti rather than rice is served at lunch. Her sweet tooth has been ruthlessly suppressed but her weakness for fruits, particularly melons, is fully indulged.
There was a time when she enjoyed a glass of wine (on occasion with Sonia Gandhi, or so her intimate friends claim), but that too is now restricted. Sheila's inherent liking for simplicity is reflected in her home. She dislikes clutter, so furnishings are minimal but tasteful, unusual in a Delhi politician's home (which tend towards opulence and ostentation).
Restraint in other areas of her life has been less successful. She has found it harder to keep her temper in check and this has betrayed her into some very ill-considered public statements. For instance, her advice to young women in the context of the Soumya Viswanathan murder, that they should avoid being similarly "adventurous", evoked outrage across the country.
While there is still some cultural identification with an educated, articulate woman who socialised freely, conducted herself as she pleased and still managed to remain thoroughly respectable, Sheila's questionable remarks on the Soumya Vishwanathan murder and perceived insouciance after the Delhi bus rape have taken the sheen off her pro-women image. Later, she annoyed Biharis by saying migrants from that state had put tremendous pressure on Delhi's resources.
Her short fuse has proved expensive. For six months in 2006-07, she stopped advertisements to a major newspaper after it carried a report about Sonia rapping her on the knuckles. Eventually, following a breakfast meeting with one of the editors, the dispute was papered over - but a couple of years later, the paper took the lead in relentlessly exposing the CWG scam.
In yet another instance, she gave the Delhi Lokayukta Manmohan Sarin short shrift. According to a former colleague, it was an "ego problem" that stopped her from cultivating him. And Sarin, these sources say, wanted her to help project the Lok Ayukta in the media; Sheila wasn't so inclined. He was to prove an enduring headache and eventually indicted her on multiple counts, including misusing government funds. And on November 5, 2013, his last day in office, Justice Sarin ruled that Sheila's granting of provisional certificate for regularisation of unauthorised colonies in 2008 had been a pre-election sop.
The second factor that affects Sheila's prospects is anti-incumbency. In her first and second terms, the improvement in Delhi's transport infrastructure through grade separators and the metro not only overcame anti-incumbency but earned her a positive vote. Prompted, so her intimate friends would have us believe, by the fact that her own children had to take public transport in Delhi and so knew precisely what hardships the common man faced in his daily commute.
The strategy for her third term was similar, but better. The Commonwealth Games were to gift the city world class infrastructure. Instead, the CWG rebounded on her with a vengeance. The Rs 84,000-crore budget for the games disappeared apparently into thin air, the only material evidence of genuine expenditure being the as-yet-incomplete Barapullah elevated road and a scattering of stainless steel dustbins and bus stops across the city.
I met BV Rao, editor of Governance Now at his office in Noida's Film City. He's launched Mail Today, been at Indian Express and Zee TV and a number of other media houses during his career, and has done extensive work on the CWG and its impact on Delhi. While he admires some of Sheila's initiatives such as the bhagidari system or the cash for food subsidy scheme, he cannot wrap his head around the CWG disaster.
He thinks that a whole new city could have come up on the money allocated for CWG, or Delhi turned into paradise on earth: "In a country that has an allocated budget of Rs 120,000 crore under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) for 63 cities for five years, which great financial wizard cleared Rs 100,000 crore for one city for an 11-day event?"All that remains, he adds, is the Commonwealth Games Village, an enduring reminder to the aam aadmi that his tax money has been poured into creating a habitat for the rich.
And a blasted-looking Connaught Place, which mysteriously swallowed Rs 450 crore without a trace. All over Lutyen's Delhi, seemingly pointless and wasteful "renovations" were undertaken. "Where was the sense in removing the fine old kota stone at Khan Market and replacing it with new, inferior stone?" asks Anuj Bahri, proprietor of the market's signature book store, Bahri Sons.
The poor in Delhi may have no personal angst about kota stone but the perception that the Congress, Sheila included, made money from the Games is widespread. The labourers who worked at the CWG construction sites worked and lived in the most miserable conditions. During the actual CWG itself, attempts were made to whisk away or hide beggars and hawkers.
In the run-up to the CWG, the administration demolished some slum clusters such as Dargah Bhure Shah, Bengali Camp, Viklang Camp for widening roads but it is not clear whether there will be substantial political fallout from this particular set of demolitions. Far more demolitions took place to make the metro possible, for instance.
In the long term, the losses to the poor have been more in terms of lost opportunities. Money was poured into wasteful exercises like redoing pavements in and around Lutyens, digging up Connaught Place and creating extensive infrastructure for the CWG village and none at all into redeveloping slums - which were literally screened off for the duration.
It was former Commonwealth Games Committee chairman Suresh Kalmadi who eventually took the flak for corruption in the planning of the CWG and went to jail. Given Kalmadi's proximity to Dixit's rival for Sonia's affections, AICC general secretary Ambika Soni, no tears were shed for him.
While no accusatory finger has thus far been pointed in the Delhi CM's direction, the very fact that the CWG debacle happened on her watch dented Sheila's squeaky clean image, much as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh suffered in the telecom and coal scams. The close involvement of her family in Delhi's affairs became suspect in public perception, with her sisters - Pamela Malhotra and Rama Dhawan - morphing from being mere siblings of the CM to dispensers of patronage. Bureaucrats aspiring for certain posts and middlemen looking to cut deals began to claim they could swing matters their way through family members - a nephew, in particular.
Such allegations are often made about politicians. What's different is the ubiquitous Delhi middlemen's perception that under Sheila, the administration is 'dead honest' - which in their parlance means "If your work is not done, the amount is returned to you forthwith, in the very same bag in which you gave it. They won't touch your money until your work is done." The CWG damaged her equity with Delhi's so-called middle and upper classes, which had always identified with her.
Making Friends & Influencing People
I met Mehmood Pracha, a member of Sheila's legal team, at Khan Market, a favourite spot for Sheila's people, Sandeep Dikshit and Pawan Khera in particular. It is not unusual to find Sandeep escorting his daughter and niece through the market or Mona Dikshit, his wife shopping there - no fuss, no entourage, unrecognized by most people.
Pracha is a slim, soft-spoken lawyer with an air of affluence and palpable political ambitions. He finds Sheila's performance disappointing. With the talent, brains and resources at her disposal, she could have done a lot better, been Delhi's Michael Bloomburg. "But unlike the New York mayor, she is a not an independent entity. She answers to a political structure and that hampers her," he says.
But he does credit her with changing the political culture of Delhi. "The recognized hierarchies within the party no longer hold. Delhi has moved on from the HKL Bhagats, Sajjan Kumars and Jagdish Tytlers. There is a certain professionalism, a more pronounced role for bureaucrats". Others disagree, pointing out that she has followed the same brand of vote-bank politics they did - creating and legitimising unauthorised colonies, under the weight of which Delhi could collapse.
Under Sheila, corruption and populism continue, and MLAs continue to make their money. For instance, South Delhi woke up to stone-and-concrete "fountains" dotting all its public parks one fine morning, an affront to common sense and aesthetics, given that the parks did not have enough water for grass or space for children to play. But delivery of services and execution of projects has improved - because Sheila's team believes in monitoring and follow-ups.
Pracha's views on Sheila's team and its professionalism are shared by many. Her boys play a significant role in the AICC. Her son and East Delhi MP Sandeep Dikshit is party spokesperson and handles its election-related research wing. He also manages the social media campaign with help from another chief ministerial scion, Deepender Singh Hooda, from neighbouring Haryana.
Sheila's right-hand man, Pawan Khera, is credited with coining #Feku for Narendra Modi, in response to #Pappu for Rahul Gandhi. A nuclear-powered technology buff who gets more out of his day than an army of bureaucrats, he attracts as much ire as admiration. Occasionally referred to as the 'super CM', he is certainly a super media manager and taps into an extensive network of overlapping circuits within and outside the political establishment. The ultimate endorsement comes from a BJP office-bearer, who says, "He is a brilliant strategist and organiser...I would love to have him in our party". Two other members of Sheila's team - former Delhi chief secretaries PK Tripathi and Rakesh Mehta - are close to her and function as her advisors.
Like all chief ministers, Sheila is said to have a strong bond with certain corporate houses. The Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group got the lion's share of power distribution in Delhi post-privatisation and has thereafter consistently received the state government's support in tariff revisions, which have been sharp despite a precipitous decline in transmission & distribution losses. Expensive power has provided the opposition - both the Aam Aadmi Party and the BJP - a lathi with which to belabour the Delhi CM. DLF is said to be other corporate group close to her, a perception perhaps founded on Sandeep Dikshit's aggressive defence of DLF against Arvind Kejriwal's allegations of a Haryana government-Robert Vadra-DLF nexus and DLF's sponsoring of cultural events supported by him.
But regardless of age and health, Sheila Dikshit is very much in charge - no single individual exercizes an extraordinary degree of influence over her. "She keeps things in separate compartments and does not allow anyone to get too big...whether it is her son, her daughter, her sisters, her cousin or her OSD [Officer on Special Duty]," says a Delhi bureaucrat.
Another big factor weighing against her is the resurgence of the BJP. It can be argued that the Sheila story is the BJP non-story. Sheila may not have won the 1998 assembly elections if the BJP hadn't gone out of its way to lose.
The onion wave of 1998 battered into oblivion a vulnerable BJP, bereft of bulwarks. The party had imploded, with its tallest leader, Madan Lal Khurana, falling victim to internal politics. He was the street-fighter, the scrappy politician who stormed barricades and braved lathis. Khurana held Delhi for decades, truly loved his city and was never happier than when holding his morning durbar with constituents (where he served up an astonishing array of cholesterol bombs - gulab jamuns, pineapple pastries, extra-greasy samosas, besan ke ladoo, fluorescent burfis and all manner of namkeen. Khurana himself would champ away steadily, occasionally urging less robust souls to partake of nashta).
After Pramod Mahajan ousted Khurana, there was no one to fill the sneakers he wore all the time. Sushma Swaraj, reluctant chief minister in 1998, had national ambitions. She was simply not interested in Delhi. BJP heavyweights who had earlier made it a point to contest from Delhi, drifted away to UP and Gujarat.
The BJP's 1999 Lok Sabha victory in Delhi was a fluke, courtesy Kargil. Vijay Kumar Malhotra (who trounced Manmohan Singh in his only electoral foray), projected as the BJP's CM nominee in 2008, was a classical politician, more comfortable in committee rooms than on the street. The late Sahib Singh Verma, despite his Lok Sabha win and the late Pramod Mahajan's efforts to build him up, never really evolved beyond his municipal persona.
It is generally believed that Sheila benefitted from the demographic shift of the 1990s, with the Purvanchalis numerically overtaking the Punjabis. A Punjabi by birth, she laid claim to being a Purvanchali by virtue of her marriage into the Dikshit clan. However, in Delhi, citizens tend to vote along lines of caste, community and perceived competence for the local MLA or councillor, with the chief ministerial candidate exerting a generalised influence in terms of image.
It's often been asked why the Congress invariably loses municipal elections in Delhi, when it convincingly wins the Assembly. Quite simply, Sheila Dikshit has no interest in having the Congress control the municipal corporations of Delhi, for three reasons. First, she does not want a powerful Congress councillor who could eventually challenge her, like the late Ram Babu Sharma (who troubled her incessantly during her first and second terms).
Second, she's quite happy to take credit for all the work done by the Municipal Corporations of Delhi and deflect the flak for work not done towards them. For instance, few Delhites are aware that water supply is the province of the state government and not the municipality. Third, she reduces the pressure on Assembly tickets by sending those who do not make the cut to the municipality, win or lose.
In the 2013 Assembly poll, she is on unfamiliar political terrain, with the rise of the Aam Admi Party and a BJP finally showing signs of life by projecting its Honest Abe, Harsh Vardhan, as chief ministerial nominee. The ever-affable doctor is regarded as a sound choice, even though he is not a recognizable figure all over Delhi. The four-term MLA is immensely popular in his constituency of Krishna Nagar and enjoys a reputation for unimpeachable integrity. He was an effective Health minister during the BJP's tenure (1993-98) and made it his personal business to tackle polio. The media focus remains on Sheila and Arvind Kejriwal. So much so that when a major TV channel planned a debate on Delhi, the BJP was overlooked.
The BJP's Delhi in-charge, Vijay Goel, was not invited and is believed to have lodged a protest. The channel contended that he was not the CM nominee, unlike the other two - Harsh Vardhan had not been announced then. In any event, the debate did not take place, apparently because Sheila backed out.
BJP supporters would have voters believe that a vote for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is a vote for the Congress. The grand old party, they claim, has propped up the AAP to channel the anti-incumbency vote away from the BJP. The AAP will then enter into a post-poll alliance with the Congress and help form a government. This perception is founded on the past intimacy between Kejriwal and Sandeep Dikshit. The MP, who apparently knew Kejriwal from his own NGO days, was the interface between the Anna Hazare camp and the government during the Jan Lokpal agitation. Kejriwal has been trying to counter this perception, with limited success.
At this point, there is little doubt that Kejriwal will damage the BJP. For instance, the Baniya community which forms the core of the BJP's support base, will swing towards Kejriwal, a fellow Baniya. (Kejriwal's photo can be found adorning counters in all manner of shops, from big stores in Nehru Place to hole-in-the-wall establishments in Jangpura B). But he will also, to a lesser extent, cut into the Congress cache of anti-BJP voters. In effect, Kejriwal has localised Delhi's vote and the outcome could well be different results in the assembly and Lok Sabha polls. The anti-incumbency vote which goes to Kejriwal in the state polls may go to Narendra Modi in the general elections.
In the Assembly, the outcome may well depend on the successful rollout of sops, in the form of cash transfer of subsidies and provision of services in recently regularised unauthorised colonies, which has proved a sound pre-electoral move in the past. It secures the migrant vote, which far outweighs established middle-income groups alienated by corruption, breakdown in law-and-order and water and power outages. Judging from the AAP surge, even populism may not be enough this time.
If there is one thing that works to Sheila's advantage politically, it is the decline of the old guard within the Congress. Back in 2008, she ought to have been a shoo-in for chief minister after having led the party to a third consecutive victory, but she was kept waiting for ten days. Sonia Gandhi's political secretary, Ahmed Patel, was then at the peak of his influence. A few months ago, when New Delhi MP Ajay Maken was appointed head of the AICC's communications department, there was speculation that he would supplant Sheila. But Rahul Gandhi has preferred to stick with her and it is unlikely that she would be denied a fourth term, if the Congress wins.
In retrospect, Sheila's genius lies in two things: first, in passing the buck and second, in the graduated delivery of development. The fact that Delhi, as the capital, is a cross between a state and a Union Territory, with the CM exerting no control over the police, the Delhi Development Authority and the MCD, has allowed her to shed responsibility on all fronts.
A classic instance was the Delhi bus rape. The Justice Usha Mehra committee indicted the state government's transport wing, pointing out that the rape was made possible by the fact that a bus was plying illegally in the guise of regular and therefore 'safe' public transport. The CM, however, accused the Delhi police, which comes under the central government, of negligence - her Transport minister remains untouched to this day.
In terms of delivery, she 'economized on progress' - a flyover here, a water treatment plant there, a few low-floor buses to mitigate judicial angst against the infamous Bluelines. She managed resources effectively but not creatively. So a large chunk of Delhi's citizenry, hungry for affordable basic services, moved to suburbia - Gurgaon, Noida, Ghaziabad, Faridabad. This was desirable, as they weren't Congress voters anyway, they were an articulate group that could create a noise in the media, and having moved out, they put no strain on resources but continued to spend money in Delhi.
When I first met Sheila Dikshit during her 1998 campaign she presented a stark contrast to Sushma Swaraj. She was English-speaking with a western sensibility, she seemed dignified and gracious. But she was positively achromatic next to the vibrant, vivacious Sushma who had the ability to rattle off Hindi, Punjabi and Haryanvi in all manner of accents and intonations, depending on her audience. She was very much the underdog, out of place in the rough and tumble of politics. It seemed unlikely that Delhi would prefer the quiet widow to the pyrotechnic bharatiya nari sporting an 8-anna bindi.
Fast forward to 2013, where the three-term CM graces the Indian Women's Press Corps - a prized platform for politicians. She has the brisk assurance of a veteran politician, is combative and impatient of hard questioning. She is the wise ruler, plagued by universal incompetence and the conspiracies of the envious. The Delhi Police has failed her, so has the central government. The BJP-run muncipalities aren't doing their job and the Lok Ayukt has nothing better to do than harass her with pointless technicalities. The endearing vulnerability and openess, has been replaced by a teflon exterior.
Sheila has evolved from a 10, Janpath durbari to a full-fledged mass leader with the confidence to claim parity with Narendra Modi in terms of good governance, but Delhi might just have outgrown her. Back in 1998, she understood what the city wanted and tried to deliver. But the new voter is young and aspirational, unimpressed by flyovers, the metro or the Sonia Vihar water treatment plant. They want change, a reality reflected in opinion polls, notably the CNN IBN-CSDS survey that put the AAP on par with the Congress and behind the BJP.
Sheila, fundamentally a status quoist, understands that the old formula of visible infrastructure plus public provisioning will not work this time, that she needs to resonate with and excite the new voter. The question is how and what. Delhi delivers its verdict on December 4; if the Congress has any rabbits lurking in its hat, now would be a good time to pull them out.
Bhavdeep Kang has been a journalist for 27 years. She has worked with The Times of India, The Sunday Observer, The Indian Express, The Pioneer, The Telegraph, India Today and Outlook. Today, she writes on politics, agriculture and food policy. Follow her at https://twitter.com/bhavkang
Tomorrow: The second part of the series: Sheila Ki Dilli