The news had spread like a wildfire. And long before her body was brought back from the hospital, a steady stream of people made a beeline at her residence at Nizamuddin. Former transport minister Ramakant Goswami could barely mumble, ‘Didi Nahi Rahe, Bhai’ while Manju, a Congress worker, wailed, “Amma Ji se milna hai/ Meri Amma Ji kahan hain?”
Senior bureaucrats began to troop in and enquired if the news was correct. Madam, many of them exclaimed, had seemed to be fine, an admission that they were in touch. Soon they nostalgically began recalling their interactions with her.
Sandeep Dikshit and his sister Latika arrived with the body in an ambulance. In death, Sheila Dikshit seemed to have brought political rivals together as leaders from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Sonia Gandhi, from Rajnath Singh to K. Natwar Singh, arrived to pay floral tributes. Curiously, there were also a large number of people who had never met her, never worked with her and had no business with her. Yet, they were there to pay their last respect. She had been out of power for the last seven years. But that did not seem to matter.
She was a mother figure to some while others respected her as a leader. Many saw her as a friend. She was addressed as didi, amma ji, madame, ma’am and to many more, including journalists, simply Sheila aunty. Despite good relations with her, journalists never spared her and did post-mortem of every decision of hers, but she took the criticism in her stride and never went after the journalist or the media house.
My first interaction
I first met her when she was appointed president of Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee in 1998 and was contesting from the East Delhi Lok Sabha seat. I had taken an appointment to interview her. But though I reached her house well ahead of the scheduled time, there was a huge crowd around her and I simply could not get anywhere near her. By the time I reached her, she was getting into her car to leave. I introduced myself and her immediate reply was ‘Sorry beta, OK, you come and talk to me in the car. Is it fine with you?’ I hurriedly nodded in affirmation and she asked her private secretary Akhilesh Tripathi to adjust me in the car.
She had to attend an election rally where Delhi AICC in-charge Ghulam Nabi Azad was also coming. She was getting late. She always sat on the front seat so, I, Tripathi and another Congress worker sat at the back.
I still remember my first question to her. “Ma’am there is this view that you are an outsider to Delhi politics and hence not familiar with the issues of Delhi.”
She gently replied, “I have studied in this city, lived in this city and spent most of my life here in Delhi. I know the issues of Delhi and if still people call me an outsider, I really don’t understand why they say this.”
Changed the face of Delhi
She lost the election despite polling more than five lakh votes, the highest that any Congress candidate had polled. There was a lot of infighting in the BJP. Sahib Singh Verma, who was made Chief Minister after Madan Lal Khurana, was embroiled in a corruption case. Verma had also faced a severe backlash over onion prices. Keeping an eye on the next election, the BJP replaced Verma with Sushma Swaraj. The onion crisis, infighting in the BJP, a divided Congress and Sheila Dikshit’s proximity to Sonia Gandhi went in Dikshit’s favour. She won the Assembly elections with 52 seats and became the Chief Minister of Delhi in 1998.
She faced huge opposition from her own MLAs, but she sailed through and she did everything to resolve issues that Delhi faced. She changed the face of Delhi and how! (See accompanying piece by Rakesh Mehta).
An epitome of grace and elegance
Her preference for beautiful cotton sarees which she elegantly donned, the way she conducted herself in public, the dignified manner in which she walked and the way she got the interiors of her office designed and decorated was a treat to watch. Even her bureaucrats would copy her sense of style and aesthetics.
Her impeccable aesthetic sense was visible all around the city - the way bus stops were redesigned, the roads were broadened, parks were rejigged and even the advertisements that Delhi government put up on the hoardings and issued in newspapers were all suddenly very classy.
She was also very particular about how things were kept inside her official bungalow and inside the Delhi Secretariat and would herself give instructions to the housekeeping staff.
A perfect host
She was fond of hosting people. Her annual lunch was always the talk of the town. She would ensure that she spoke to each guest for some time. Every year she would come to our group of journalists and would invariably say to me ‘Beta, have you tasted that fish, it is very good, go and taste it’.
With female journalists, she would talk about dresses. To the elderly, she would enquire about their health and to her MLAs and ministers, she would request them to take care of the guests. In smaller lunches she would ensure that she took little helpings from everyone’s plate to make them feel wanted. She was a great host.
Indeed, she had started the practice of inviting senior editors and journalists for breakfast meetings. It provided her with feedback that her party workers and bureaucrats could not have given her. It gave her a chance to explain the issues and also invite suggestions.
A caring lady
One afternoon when I went to her 3, Motilal Nehru Marg residence to get her reaction to something, I found her sitting in the lawn. All around her were old home articles plus some old newspapers. I asked her what she was doing.
She picked up an old newspaper and asked me to see the headline. It was an edition published the morning after Gandhiji’s assassination. She said that realising she could take some time off that day, she was utilising it to put old household goods under the sun. It was a rare sight to see the caring side of the Chief Minister. She could have asked helping hands to do it. But she chose to do such things herself.
Her style of giving respect
I was once asked to accompany marketing executives to interview her for a special ‘Mood of the Nation’ issue. The moment I entered her office, she said, “Arrey why this formality, you have my power of attorney to write anything, you know everything about me.” That one sentence did more to raise my stature than anything else I did. This was her way of making others feel important.
Very sorted person, clear thinking
A football club I have been associated with wanted to meet the Chief Minister for putting in a word to potential sponsors. The delegation met her with our patron Chaudhary Mateen. She heard us out and asked what we expected from her. Asked to use her influence to get some sponsors, She replied, “I can put in a word and they may also help you. But if in future that person asks me for a favour which I may not be able to reciprocate, this will keep haunting me. so let us find more practical ways."
She did have sharp differences within and outside the party and she was dogged by several controversies. But she handled them with her usual charm and determination.
During her early days in power she faced tough times and on at least two occasions it appeared that rebels would succeed in dislodging her from power. But she never looked tense. One day I remember asking her why her own people were against her.
“These people who are now against me had jointly proposed my name to lead because they had their own differences then. But now they have united against me! But it is a matter of time; everything would settle down,” she calmly replied with her trademark smile. Punjabi by birth and belonging to an ‘Army family’, married into a Brahmin household, she had no trouble accepting a Muslim as her son-in-law and a Jain as her daughter-in-law. She loved her country, Delhi, her party and the values of her party.
The last time I formally interviewed her, my last question was: If given an option, will you again opt for the Congress and if yes, why? She replied, “Of course. I will always want to be in Congress because the ideals of the Congress are the ideals of India. Remember that all the development that has taken place in the country and the respect that this great country enjoys in the world is because of the Congress. The India for which we are proud today is the India thanks to the Congress. In my every Janam, I would like to serve the Congress.”