For those who have followed Delhi politics for the last 25 years or so, Sheila Dikshit will always be remembered as a Chief Minister who was easily accessible, humble and motherly, who never held anything against anyone, including her opponents.
When she began her innings at the helm of Delhi in 1998, many within the Congress and the media did not give her more than a few months in the hot seat. Being from Uttar Pradesh, party leaders who belonged to Delhi considered her an outsider who was given the job only because of her proximity to the Gandhis.
Not surprisingly, there was hardly a day when there was no news report of her impending fall. A senior editor of a powerful media house, in fact, seemed to run a campaign against her almost on a daily basis, with negative stories about her way of functioning. Every other day there would be news that she would be replaced by Subhash Chopra, the then Delhi Congress president.
But despite such negative Press, she remained dignified and never turned vindictive towards that media house. And as it were, she ruled Delhi for 15 long years, a record that will be hard to beat.
Her soft behaviour did not mean she couldn’t put her foot down if she wanted to have her way. The Signature Bridge, inaugurated only last year, and the introduction of low-floor buses in the city, are cases in point. For Dikshit, the Signature Bridge was vital to provide connectivity to Northeast Delhi.
As for low-floor buses, she felt that it would be more advantageous for the elderly, women and children. But A.K. Walia, her finance minister at that time, opposed both these plans. He felt they would be a huge drain on the exchequer. Low-floor buses particularly were four times the cost of standard buses. But she put her foot down, stripping Walia of the finance portfolio to have her way.
Today, a majority of the buses that ply not only in Delhi but also in many other cities are low-floor buses. As for the Signature Brdige, it has proved to be a boon for Northeast Delhi.
Another pet project of hers that faced many an objection was the Barapullah flyover. When her government first proposed it, the then Railway Minister, Mamata Banerjee, was against the flyover as it would pass very close to the Nizamuddin Dargah. Banerjee felt it would hurt religious sentiments.
In the end, Dikshit’s quite but dogged persuasion made the project possible. When all the phases of the flyover are finally over, residents of East Delhi can hope to reach the airport in roughly 30 minutes, about half the time it takes currently.
For Dikshit, any task that was good for the people and the country was top priority, even if her government had no role in it. The Commonwealth Games in Delhi in 2010 was being directly controlled by the organising committee led by Suresh Kalmadi and the Central Government. But with many of the projects running behind schedule, she decided to step in although she was told it was not her business.
If there are political leaders who believe in cooperative federalism and healthy Centre-State relations, Dikshit would be at the top of the list. She believed in a good working relationship with the Centre, whichever the ruling party, and not be confrontationist.
At the turn of the century, air pollution in Delhi was its peak. The Supreme Court came down heavily on the government and made it mandatory to introduce the less polluting CNG buses and phase out the diesel ones.
Even as the Delhi Government was under pressure to meet the deadline for the introduction of the new buses, Ajay Maken, the then Delhi transport minister, woke up one morning to read in the newspapers that his Commissioner had been transferred. An angry Maken immediately called Dikshit to protest why his top officer had been transferred and that too without his knowledge.
Dikshit, it is said, told Maken that the news item could be wrong as she had not consented to his transfer but she said she would check and call back. About five minutes later she called Maken to tell him that the news was indeed true and that the Central Government had ordered the transfer unilaterally, without taking the Delhi Government into confidence.
A furious Maken told Dikshit they should immediately call a press conference and charge the Centre with interfering in the affairs of the State government. But Dikshit, realising the futility of any protest as the Centre was within its right to transfer any IAS officer, counseled Maken to register their protest but not turn it into a confrontation. That in essence was Dikshit, RIP.