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Tuesday, Sep 17, 2019

The Sheila Dikshit I Knew

Always attired in politically correct, pastel cotton saris in summer and discerningly selected Tassare saris in winter, she was always personable but devoid of makeup, jewellery, bindi or handbag.

delhi Updated: Jul 21, 2019 01:49 IST
Shailaja Chandra
Shailaja Chandra
New Delhi
Former chief minister of Delhi Sheila Dikshit.
Former chief minister of Delhi Sheila Dikshit.(Kaushik Ramaswamy / HT Archive)
         

It is unusual for bureaucrats to have genuine regard, leave alone affection for a politician. That is what made Sheila Dikshit different and special. I was one among the retinue of chief secretaries that had the privilege of working for a chief minister who steered Delhi to become one of the loveliest cities in the world. I worked with her during the heights of a golden era when Delhi expelled public transport fuelled by diesel and replacing it with CNG.

She was the CM who moved heaven and earth to remove every obstacle that threatened to derail the privatisation of power distribution and unbundle the Delhi Vidyut Board, a den of corruption, to give efficient power supply to the city, and a shining example of what reforms could achieve. She carried with her the lieutenant governor, a delegate of a National Democratic Alliance-led central government and thought nothing of going to meet the PM, the power minister, the disinvestment minister, the Comptroller and Auditor General and consulting every stalwart to make it a success. She backed Team Metro to the hilt and maintained the delicate balance needed between the Delhi government and three central ministries. A masterpiece of forward thinking and deft handling.

Always attired in politically correct, pastel cotton saris in summer and discerningly selected Tassare saris in winter, she was always personable but devoid of makeup, jewellery, bindi or handbag. She was equally at ease sitting on a ramshackle stool inside a congested slum asking the women “aap ko pani, ration or tel mila?” (have you got water, rations and oil?) and still wearing the same sari actively participating in a cascade of music festivals that resonated through the parks and monuments of Delhi. Nothing was too unimportant for her and nothing shoddy or second-rate was tolerated.

On my first meeting with her after taking over as chief secretary I was stunned at being told by her,” Shailaja ji, this Secretariat is in need of proper maintenance. Before you do anything else, please find a good housekeeper.” I was appalled! How could I, descending as I was from the lofty heights of being a secretary in the health ministry, be told to find a housekeeper? Was that the job of a chief secretary? Was it because I was a woman? I wasn’t pleased.

But as the days passed I too understood why everything having to be fresh, clean and gleaming mattered so much. Most importantly why every toilet- not just for officers – had to be clean, dry and odourless. Why mops and cleaning material needed a place – out of sight but ready to be used twice a day.Why professional contracts were needed to make hundreds of glass windows, marble staircases and granite walls gleam from afar.It was the seat of government and cleanliness instilled pride and respect. Even the poorest visitor should own that building as a citizen.

Before joining the Delhi Government I had worked for scores of cabinet ministers and chief ministers. But what Sheila Dikshit exuded was different. Most senior politicians are courteous but when something has to be done, they use different ploys to bully, cajole or sweet-talk bureaucrats. Many jump levels and look for pliable officers and marginalize the inconvenient ones. Not so Sheila Dikshit. She was choosy about the officers she kept close to her but having selected them there were then no games, no gossip, no durbargiri and no Chinese whispers. Trust was unspoken but solid. Officers were handpicked for given qualities and then backed to the hilt. But no excuses or complaints were tolerated or encouraged.No letter writing and telephone calls were made to take the monkey off some whining bureaucrat’s back. “ It’s your job, sweetheart, “ she would say much like an affectionate aunt. But if a problem needed a political solution, she would shout for her man Friday in office, at home, in the car or at a press conference and make that important call to Brajesh Mishra or Mayawati and get her way.

I was often shocked by the way she was treated after she had won the election of 2004.Weeks of waiting, political skulduggery, any number of baiters gunning for her and worse, humiliation at the hands of her enemies within the party. She did not discuss politics with me but I knew what was going on. She didn’t pass on her chagrin to officers.

Sheila Dikshit will be remembered by officers who worked with her but much more by the citizens of Delhi that have benefitted from a clean, green city, legislative changes (house tax, Delhi Right to Information, stamp duty and dozens more ) that have changed the face of Delhi.RIP Sheila ji.

First Published: Jul 21, 2019 00:33 IST