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Why Sheila Dikshit Was One Of India’s Tallest Leaders

With her death, we are indeed witnessing the end of an era.

She was just 4 feet 11 inches tall but towered over the great leaders she would meet so regularly.

Sheila Dikshit was Chief Minister for 15 years out of the 23 I lived in Delhi. During her regime, the city transformed beyond recognition. It grew relentlessly to surpass Bombay as the major urban centre in the country. Almost all Fortune 500 companies from across the world set up their offices, factories and work centres in and around Delhi. Today Delhi, with all its pollution and chaos, is a world-class urban centre with an enviable metro rail running across all corners and an airport that is among the busiest in the world.

Sheila Dikshit died of a heart problem at 81 and was mourned by thousands of her fans. The sorrow and the feeling of loss were immense at the cremation where a large number of us congregated last week. For me, the entire experience was much more of a personal loss than political. Sheila Dikshit was aunty for me, someone whose house I lived in during my early days in Delhi. She was even then a prominent leader, as Minister for parliamentary affairs in Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet. However, what mattered to me then was that she was such a gracious host — checking if we had breakfast and then ensuring that we all had dinner. And taking us out to see a Hindi movie unfailingly every other week.

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Her dining table was always full of guests. I met people from all walks of life there; each one of them treated just as affectionately as the other. One evening we would have Sharmila Tagore with us for dinner, an old friend of Sheila aunty’s. The next evening would be dinner with Vir Bahadur Singh, then Chief Minister in Uttar Pradesh. Aunty would be busy talking to all of them but ensuring the food was hot and the water cold. Those days she was very fond of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and played his qawwalis almost every day and at each party.

She became Delhi’s Chief Minister in 1998 and right from her first day started severe reform. She announced a plan to clean up and beautify Connaught Place and made it truly “Swachch“. She would often remember her childhood when the area was fashionable and smart, and she wanted to take it back to the same era. A task she completed, with extreme persistence and sheer will. It is now called Rajiv Chowk but is a throwback to the quaint British times when clean whitewashed buildings stood in a circle inviting shoppers and tourists.

The next thing she did was far more remarkable, Those days, we Dilliwalahs were accustomed to seeing one horrible news clip in our newspapers every day. “Blueline Kills” was a headline that never failed to shock us every morning. Delhi’s transportation system was run by a mafia of operators who ran rickety buses and drove at breakneck speeds with impunity, competing to reach passengers waiting at bus stations. In their hurry, these buses would trample pedestrians and cyclists with impunity, and as they were protected by powerful politicians who often owned the buses, no one got punished

Sheila Dikshit completely overhauled the bus service. Delhi now boasts of a state of art transport network that rivals the best in the West. Modern air-conditioned buses feed into an extensive metro rail system that is as efficient as it can be. What must also not be forgotten is that as a new CM in 1998, Sheila aunty inherited a very polluted city. She used a Supreme Court judgement to change the fuel and make the entire fleet of public transport run on CNG. Those of us who lived in Delhi then remember how the air quality changed overnight, and we could all breathe easy.

Delhi is again one of the most polluted cities in the world and requires another Sheila Dikshit. If there was a political leader who understood modern India’s urban challenges and solved them with sensitivity and efficiency, it was Sheila Dikshit. A few of us now are thinking of launching a think tank focusing on urbanisation; it’s challenges and solutions in her memory.

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Sheila Dikshit, of course, had difficult moments. The Nirbhaya case was a big blot on her career. She accepted all the charges, unlike Chief Ministers now who shield rape victims and harass families of raped women. The Commonwealth Games held in Delhi nine years ago also brought with them enormous charges of corruption and mismanagement against her. With characteristic elan and charm, she faced all these challenges with her warm smile and her dignified behaviour. She was visibly annoyed when Sheila ki Jawani became a hit song everywhere but would do a little dance step when that tacky song would play on loudspeakers during functions she attended.

Politically, Sheila Dikshit was the definition of consistency and loyalty. She defined the Congress ideology with everything she did or said. For her, the only economic ideology that would work for India was the left-of-centre socialist economy that Nehru and Patel had advocated. Secularism was a defining feature of the idea of India and could never be questioned. Her critics would point to the middle-class moorings that they said kept her removed from rural reality. The charge was that she did not understand poverty and was oblivious of the suffering of the slum dweller. But as Harsh Mander so simply pointed out, no one did as much for the homeless as Sheila Dikshit did.

With her death, we are indeed witnessing the end of an era. The edifice that she stood for was that of an India that was a proud developing country. A country that would be non-aligned and would not ally with tyrants like Israel and remain wary of Saudi dictatorship. The government would strive to protect law and order and ensure that the minority and the vulnerable populations were protected and promoted. It is such a sad point in time that she died just when we seem to have abandoned all these principles. The majoritarian political economy of today is what Sheila Dikshit fought against all her life. A life that now needs to be celebrated for the grace with which this charming lady shaped for us an idea of modern India. An idea that, as she said, we must continuously fight for, despite all odds.

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