‘The Dec 16 horror left me frustrated’: Excerpts from Sheila Dikshit’s memoir
By way of nostalgia, Delhi may have changed little for 79-year-old Sheila Dikshit, who scoured Janpath for flat sandals with bright straps as a college student, went for picnics at Qutub Minar and travelled by public bus on board which her husband would propose to her one day.
But the Delhi of her youth and the Delhi that she governed for 15 years were, by scenic and political yardstick, a world apart. In her memoir, Citizen Delhi: My Times, My Life, the former chief minister traces her life in the capital as she knew it and her plans to develop it into a modern city.
During her tenure from 1998 to 2013, Delhi got an infrastructure boost with the metro chugging through the most congested neighbourhoods, public transport switching to CNG and new flyovers adding to road space. The Bhagidari system that involved residents in decision-making was an innovation to Delhi.
Her career, however, was also riven by controversies that followed the ambitious Commonwealth Games (CWG) of October 2010, Shunglu Committee report, failure of the Bus Rapid Transit corridor, rising crimes against women and Congress infighting.
In her book that will be released at the Jaipur Literature Festival on January 27, Dikshit remembers how the lack of clear chain of command delayed CWG projects. “I had seen the work that had gone into the preparations for the Asian Games of 1982, which triggered the first real transformation of Delhi. At that time the PMO was clearly in charge…This time it was different,” she writes.
Before she lost to AAP in 2013, she had contemplated the changing mood of the electorate and the impact it would have on her life thereon. But she couldn’t be prepared enough. “To say that I was not hurt by the election verdict of 2013 would be untrue. For over fifteen years I had navigated the tricky lanes of power, guided by the idea of developing Delhi into a modern city. Now it seemed as if that was either not enough or not attractive enough.”
Here are excerpts from her book:
Even as there continued to be debates about the benefits that hosting international sports events can bring for the host nation, my point was simple—in 2003, the NDA government had won its bid to host the 2010 Commonwealth Games, so there was no going back now…
There was just one problem, though—almost two-thirds of all projects were running behind schedule as of January 2009. The Delhi government needed to know how many countries were participating, how many events there were, which sporting venues would be used for the Games and which ones for training, and which hotels would be earmarked for visiting delegates. These details would determine the areas that required road-widening, over-passes and underpasses, and streetscaping. This important information was made available to the Delhi government only by late 2009, leaving so many things to the eleventh hour. My anxiety was on the rise. I felt a sense of ownership about all the projects whether they were our direct responsibility or not…
There was no unified command overseeing the entire effort or even in the know of the larger picture and details at the same time. The Union Sports Minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar, like his predecessor, the late Sunil Dutt, had made it clear that he was in principle opposed to such mammoth events and so was a reluctant participant. The PMO too held back. As a general indifference marked the preparations, the Games started seeming a bit orphaned…
During those days, I spent over six hours daily at the Village. There were times when I hitched up my sari and picked up a broom; I could not help it.
In October, as work started on the rest of the route, the project was engulfed by a high decibel protest campaign. Car owners who realised that they were required to stick to lanes and go through longer pauses at traffic lights, as the system weighed in favour of buses, were most vocal. Several sections of the press went so far as to seek comments from drivers of Blueline buses, which they had dubbed as killer buses…
Admittedly, there were errors in the design, given the number of breaks in the road; but the ferocity of opposition seemed to be coming from somewhere else, and not from a sense of distress about design flaws in the BRT. Amid all this din, a Delhi Police bulletin stating that the BRT stretch had dropped off from the list of top ten ‘black spots’ and was experiencing far less fatal accidents, was lost. That is politics in the age of twenty-four-hour television for you.
December 16, 2012
While people of all ages took to the streets and held candle light vigils, their anger and anguish palpable in their eyes, our government appeared non-responsive. Even as I quietly reached out to Nirbhaya’s family to extend them every possible help, my statement that law and order did not fall within our government’s jurisdiction was viewed as being an insensitive attempt at passing the buck.
Never the less, it was not so. I too was a woman—moreover, a mother and a grandmother. In the last decade or so, the growing confidence of the young girls and women of my city had been my source of delight. It sickened me as a long-time resident of Delhi to see this face of the city…
What should have been a moment for me to take charge of the situation was reduced to a moment of extreme frustration for the simple reason that law and order in Delhi was the Centre’s responsibility.
The Centre’s unresponsive stance immediately after the incident seemed deliberate as it shifted the focus entirely on the Delhi government.
At that juncture, like many other issues, this tragedy, too, was politicised for leverage and many a tear shed over the plight of women. However, that empathy for women has never found a corresponding echo in political parties when it comes to underrepresentation of women in Parliament.
When I was asked by the party to become the ‘CM face’ of Uttar Pradesh, the first time ever that the party had done this, I resisted for two months…..I must admit I was a bit confused about whether I should take the plunge or not—if I said no, it might be taken to mean that I was not inclined to do my bit for the party. On the other hand, if I said yes, I was not sure what exactly my role would be. Ultimately, loyalty to the party and its leadership prevailed…
The euphoria and enthusiasm slackened once it became clear that the Congress was going in for an alliance with a breakaway group of the Samajwadi Party headed by the then UP Chief Minister. The entire scenario changed.
I voluntarily announced that since an alliance could not have two chief ministerial faces, I would be withdrawing. I am not saying this in a regretful tone, for my involvement with politics has given me more satisfaction than I could have ever dreamt of.
All of a sudden, residents of parts of South, North and East Delhi were startled out of their wits to get huge power bills that were totally disproportionate to their usage from the Reliance-run power utility.
It was the chink the dissidents were looking for. They accused our government of corruption, of favouring the private power company in question by trying to increase power prices and provide more subsidy sops to it…
It was a harsh summer in more ways than one. One day I woke up knowing exactly what to do. I sent in my resignation to Mrs Sonia Gandhi, indicating that the party politics was becoming too much. I did not get a response from her, but Ahmed Patel, adviser to the Congress President, came to meet me about the letter I had written to Soniaji…
I replied, ‘What do you expect me to do, when I am harassed like this? I don’t want the Chief Minister’s position. I am not wedded to power. I am prepared to work. If there are complaints of corruption and what not against me, let them be investigated; but I am not willing to be subjected to this crude harassment.’ Upon which Ahmedji said, ‘Your presence is essential to making this government work. Soniaji is not ready to accept your resignation and has asked me to communicate this to you.’
Ties with Sonia
Perhaps it had to do with my own experience, not so long ago, of the loss of a husband and companion in mid-life, I felt a need to be in touch with Mrs Sonia Gandhi in one of the most difficult phases of her life. She had become a virtual recluse. I started visiting her once or twice a month. Several factors prompted me to do so, the long association Dadda had had with the Nehrus and the Gandhis as well as my own association with Rajiv Gandhi, but above all the dignity with which Mrs Sonia Gandhi was dealing with her sorrow.
During those meetings, she hardly spoke. If at all she did, it was in monosyllables. Always attired in white, she seemed to be in a world of her own. I would chat about this and that, very carefully touching upon politics every now and then.
Life after losing Delhi
For the first few days after the election results, I stayed home. There was a constant stream of associates, party workers and friends, who came to commiserate…..After two or three days, I made a courtesy call to Mrs Sonia Gandhi, telling her I was sorry for letting down the party. She just patted my shoulder. No words were exchanged.
Most of my time was taken up in making the transition to become an ordinary householder. My cousin Nimmi came to help me move out of the official residence on Motilal Nehru Marg, to a rented flat in the Silver Arch apartment complex on Delhi’s Ferozeshah Road. I took an eleven-month lease, not knowing that three months later, in March 2014, I would be leaving for Kerala to assume the position of governor…..The posting helped me slow down and look at life with a renewed gaze.
I had just started relishing this endeavour when the ups and downs of politics intervened once again….In August, I resigned as governor before I could be asked to quit and returned to Delhi to my Nizamuddin flat, which had been vacated by then. It was about the twenty-ninth time I had shifted residence!
Excerpted with permission from Bloomsbury Publishing India.