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Sheila Dikshit: Curtains for the matriarch

Sunday, 8 December 2013 - 3:20pm IST Updated: Sunday, 8 December 2013 - 3:22pm IST | Place: New Delhi | Agency: IANS

For 15 long years she ruled the Indian capital with urbane manners and good policies that endeared her to many of its 18 million people, dispersed across one of the world's most sprawling and historic capitals, a mix of the old and the new, the modern and the primitive.

She started off as a reluctant politician but never looked like one, brushing aside challenges within the Congress and beyond. In the end, however, Sheila Dikshit couldn't save her party from an avalanche of discontent, quite a bit of it rubbing off on her by default because of disappointment and anger against the policies and programmes of the central government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

All these years, Dikshit became the best known face of the Congress in Delhi, her popularity keeping pace with the rapid development the city saw on almost all fronts, save law and order over which she had no control and came under the purview of the federal government. But most people in Delhi blamed her government for the recent rapes and other insecurities of the city.

Married to IAS officer Vinod Dikshit, who was close to former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi but died prematurely of a heart attack, she began her political education by helping out her father-in-law, veteran Uttar Pradesh Congress leader Uma Shankar Dikshit, a minister in Indira Gandhi's cabinet. It was Indira Gandhi who chose Sheila Dikshit first for a UN delegation.

The family's affinity with the Gandhis helped. She became a minister in Rajiv Gandhi's government after entering the Lok Sabha in 1984 from Uttar Pradesh after her husband's death. She was later a minister in the Prime Minister's Office before the Congress was ousted nationally in 1989.

Dikshit's known rapport with Congress president Sonia Gandhi helped her become president of faction-ridden party in Delhi in May 1998, barely six months before she led it to victory in assembly elections.

In no time, Dikshit -- although not a powerful orator -- proved how to preside over a microscopic India called Delhi.

The Congress won an impressive 52 of the 70 seats in Delhi in 1998. The Dikshit magic worked again in 2003 and 2008.

"She knew how to handle dissent, and how to flatter people to get work done," a former official who assisted her in the Delhi assembly for around a decade told IANS.

The Kapurthala-born Dikshit was credited with numerous people-friendly programmes. She provided easy access to neighbourhood associations. She was at home in Hindi and English.

She was credited for Delhi's growing infrastructure including roads and flyovers, a less polluted city, better public transport system as well as development on the health and educational fronts.

Former officials praised her for administrative skills -- and rapport with most party legislators.

Despite a heart operation in 2012, the chief minister never went to sleep before 11 at night, said an aide.

Son Sandeep Dikshit is a Lok Sabha member from Delhi.

A product of Convent of Jesus and Mary School in Delhi and of Miranda House college in Delhi University, the now 75-year-old grandmother would often unwind with her family after a hectic workday. She loved movies and music -- and read Guy de Maupassant and Jane Austen.

Everything made her a favourite in a city where the Bharatiya Janata Party only kept losing in electoral battles for the assembly.

That is when things started going wrong.

The furore over perceived corruption leading up to the Commonwealth Games badly affected Delhi's image. Although she later claimed part credit for the way it was eventually held, it was widely felt that she too was guilty for the mess.

Then came the civil society movement of Gandhian Anna Hazare, whose lieutenant and government official-turned-activist Arvind Kejriwal became a bete noire, repeatedly finding faults with her administration.

The gang-rape and death of a young woman in a moving bus in Delhi in December 2012 and the frenzied protests that followed hurt Dikshit badly.

She tried to sail with people's mood by saying her own daughter didn't feel safe in Delhi. The remark didn't win her brownie points.

Runaway inflation, which affected prices of daily food items, shortage of water and rising power bills were exploited to the hilt by the opposition, not just the BJP but the debutant Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) too. By the time elections were announced in Delhi for this year, the dominant feeling was that the Congress was on its way out. And that's what happened.




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