One of the one percent in 13 million.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
It’s late morning and Sheila Dikshit is picking up a duster from the top of her washing machine.
Until recently, this 4ft, 11-inch woman was Delhi’s last empress. The first, as is well known, was Razia Sultan, who ruled the Delhi Sultanate around 800 years ago.
“Razia’s times were different,” says Ms Dikshit, placing the duster on a flower pot. “She didn’t have to go through elections every five years as I had to.”
After running the Capital for 15 years, during which time she thrice led the Congress party to victory in the Delhi assembly elections, the 76-year-old chief minister suffered a crushing defeat in December 2013. Her party’s tally fell from 41 to 8 seats, and she was defeated in her own constituency of New Delhi.
A week before, she vacated the sprawling bungalow on Motilal Nehru Marg, the former chief minister’s official residence that is famous for its fruit bats and semal (red silk-cotton) trees. Her new home on Feroz Shah Marg is a three-bedroom apartment in a multi-storeyed residential complex with dingy elevators.
The Delhi Walla is standing on the balcony, overlooking Connaught Place’s grim skyline. Ms Dikshit moved in three days ago. A fresh marigold garland adorns a statue of Ganesh.
“I have taken this flat on rent,” she says, entering the drawing room, bare except for yellow and blue sofas. Ms Dikshit sits down at her dining table, with the unstudied grace of a privileged woman who was subjected to discipline and etiquette lessons in her youth. Her chair is cushioned with a hot-water bottle. She addresses her domestic help with a courteous “beta”.
In the small kitchen, Ramu, her cook for more than 20 years, is making gobhi (cauliflower) dish for lunch; he is also good at rustling up “Western” dishes and can make pasta in white sauce, pasta in red sauce, and also certain French-style salads. The maid Lily is wiping the marble floor. Ms Dikshit has just finished her breakfast of muesli, papaya and a glass of coconut water; sometimes she also has a slice of buttered toast.
Pointing towards the balcony, she refers to a scenic stone stepwell, saying, “You cannot see Agrasen ki Baoli from my home, but it’s very close. My daughter lives in a nearby building and you get a clear view from there.”
The house that Ms Dikshit owns faces the more iconic Humayun’s Tomb. “Ah, that’s my most beloved monument. It’s bang opposite my property in Nizamuddin East. I have seen it in rain and sunshine, and during dark nights.”
She rented it out after becoming the chief minister in 1998. “The money I’m getting from it will be used to pay for this,” she says, waving at her drawing room.
Until December 2013, Ms Dikshit’s life was an endless stream of phone calls, meetings, appointments and files — “I always had to rush, rush and rush; only part of a Sunday was put aside each week to try to catch up with myself.”
“I’m trying to put all those things together that I hadn’t been able to put together in the past 15 years. I hadn’t been taking care of my personal life at all. There is also packing and unpacking to be done. I also have to sort out my books. But even now, I have scores of visitors from my former constituency and elsewhere coming to present me with problems about water supply or a case not being registered and so on, and my answer to all their queries is that I am no longer your chief minister or MLA.”
That’s the less painful part after being stripped of power. What about the newspaper headlines in which Ms Dikshit’s name is regularly hyphenated with scams, grafts and FIRs (first information reports)?
“I don’t get emotionally affected by them,” says Ms Dikshit, wiping her nose with a paper napkin. “I read newspapers only to get information.”
Otherwise, the former chief minister “keeps reading all the time” — she get books from her daughter, friends and from Khan Market’s BahriSons Booksellers. She recently finished reading I Am Malala, the book by the Pakistani teenager who became an international symbol of courage after surviving an assassination attempt by the Taliban. Ms Dikshit is also discovering the writings of Osho, the spiritual guru most famous for advocating a more relaxed approach to sexuality. “I think he is very frank and modern,” she says.
Ms Dikshit has also been attending concerts, dance performances and plays. At night, her CD player runs classical music on a loop — last night, she fell asleep listening to dhrupad singers, the Gundecha Brothers. She has also started going out to places “where she feels like going out”, and is meeting friends more often, chatting about books, saris, films and Arvind Kejriwal, Ms Dikshit’s nemesis who defeated her in the New Delhi constituency and succeeded her as the chief minister.
“Of course, Mister Kejriwal is a phenomenon,” says Ms Dikshit. “People are talking of him and we try to find out the views of others on him.”
The meteoric rise of 45-year-old Mr Kejriwal began in 2011 during social activist Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption hunger strike in Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan. Within two years, his newly founded Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) stunned political pundits with its surprise victories in the city’s assembly elections. One of the most visible features of the new party’s campaign was the posters on the back of thousands of auto-rickshaws that portrayed Dikshit as the face of corruption.
“No doubt Mister Kejriwal is a very, very smart politician,” says Ms Dikshit. “He comes up with populist ideas without evaluating if they are achievable and yet people fall for them.”
Before resigning a few days ago in a theatrical twist of events, Mr Kejriwal’s 49-day government made sure to leave life a little messier for Ms Dikshit. The state government’s anti-corruption branch filed an FIR against her for her alleged role in a street light project implemented prior the XIX Commonwealth Games in 2010 in Delhi. It also wrote to President Pranab Mukherjee, seeking action against her for allegedly trying to gain political political advantage by granting regularization certificates to unauthorized colonies. Ms Dikshit has accused him of carrying out a witch-hunt. She also maintains that there is no truth to the charges against her government concerning the Games.
If she finds herself alone in a room with Mr Kejriwal, will she agree to have tea cakes with him?
“I meet all kinds of people, from the most sophisticated to the most intellectual to the least of all.”
Meeting everyone is a politician’s job, of course, and like any seasoned member of that tribe, Ms Dikshit easily slips into talking of the good things that she thinks she did for Delhi.
“I grew up in this city…so it was a joy to see it changing in front of my eyes. We expanded Delhi’s green cover from 8-9% to 33%. We increased the pass percentage of our government high schools from 33% to 97%.”
Ms Dikshit’s long soliloquy includes setting up of new universities and hospitals, of introducing monetary benefits for school-going girls and widows, and schemes for women’s hygiene. It touches upon the advantages of holding literary seminars at the academies that her government established. The list concludes with Dikshit noting her attempts to revive kite-flying.
Yet she lost the election miserably.
“That is there,” she concedes, good-humoured and cordial, resting her arms on the table, her eyes turned towards the newly painted wall, as if she were looking far beyond and behind it. “Perhaps people were gullible, or naïve or innocent to be taken in by the promises of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and AAP, which could certainly never have been fulfilled.” Looking down, she says, “Many people from my party abstained from campaigning. Why so? I do not know. But I don’t feel disappointed. This is politics.”
A colonel’s daughter, Ms Dikshit was not born to be in politics. As a student at the Convent of Jesus and Mary school, when she and her friends would ride cycles on tree-lined Akbar Road, counting the occasional cars they spotted on the way, all that Ms Dikshit cared for was movie stars Gregory Peck and Rock Hudson, and the novels of Jane Austen, though Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is her favourite book.
The decisive turn in her destiny took place at the University of Delhi, when during boring history lectures of her master of arts classes, she would play noughts & crosses with a boy named Vinod. Soon, they started taking the bus to Connaught Place, where they would watch movies at Odeon and Rivoli and have hamburger at a joint called “something Dairy”, opposite Scindia House — restaurants like Gaylord and Volga were too expensive. They married in 1962. Though Ms Dikshit’s late husband became a bureaucrat, her father-in-law Uma Shankar was a senior politician who served in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet. She inherited his political legacy, which she has passed down to her son Sandeep. He lives not far away in a bungalow in Pandara Park, allotted to him as a member of Parliament (MP).
However, only after becoming chief minister did Ms Dikshit realize Delhi’s vastness that spread beyond the Yamuna — her entire life in the Capital was confined to central Delhi.
At a time when more and more urban Indians are taking a passionate interest in politics, especially on online platforms, one supposes that Ms Dikshit must have harvested this new constituency of voters — after all, she has the experience of governing a metropolis for more than a decade. But the Internet does not intersect with her daily routine. Unlike most of us, Ms Dikshit never begins her day by checking email. She says she doesn’t have an email address — never had one.
“I don’t feel I’m losing out on something if I’m not on Twitter, Facebook or Google,” she says, still loyal to the old world of letters and invitation cards. “As chief minister, and before that as a minister and an MP, I daily met more than a hundred people from different walks of life. I also interacted with scores of friends who would share views on things.”
Ms Dikshit was frequently sighted at the India International Centre, or one of the major hotels, presiding over a book launch. Sometimes, she invited distinguished authors and artists to her home for private lunches. Once she dispatched a handwritten letter of appreciation to the author of a new collection of short stories.
These could be completely different ways to reach out to people than those employed by Mr Kejriwal, but Ms Dikshit feels that the latest star of Delhi politics is merely repeating what she has already executed.
“Mister Kejriwal is only renaming what we invented,” she says. “While he talked of setting up mohalla (neighbourhood) committees, we already put the people and the government together through the Bhagidari system. But Delhi is not like other states. It does have an assembly, a group of ministers, and a secretariat, and yet the police are not under us, and control over land is also not with us. Each time we want to build a hospital or a school, we have to go to the Delhi Development Authority. Similarly, whenever the police did anything wrong, the people blamed my government. But the police are not with us!”
This is a detail that Mr Kejriwal more effectively brought to public notice when, despite being a chief minister, he staged a dharna (sit-in) near India Gate last month.
“Governments don’t go on a dharna,” says Ms Dikshit. “Mister Kejriwal brought in a new system. I had conveyed the same message differently. I went to the (Union) home minister. I met the chief justice of Delhi. Our style was not rushing out on to the streets. If we needed anything from the urban development ministry, for instance, we did it through talks and negotiations.”
“How can we forget the power outages, traffic jams and smoggy air before Sheilaji came,” asks author and former journalist Ira Pande, who has been living in Delhi since 1990 and knows Ms Dikshit personally. “She rolled up her sleeves like an efficient housewife and got down to cleaning up the mess that this city had been left in by previous governments.”
Turning to Ms Dikshit’s “grace and personal style”, Ms Pande says, “Nothing illustrated these qualities more than the interiors of her official residence in Lutyens’ Delhi, which was so different from the dark, gloomy insides of other such bungalows. She had managed to fill it with light and happiness. Her secretariat was also squeaky clean — every brass knob and window pane gleamed. They may sound minor but such touches exuded confidence and hope. She is missed by many who feel that even though her party deserved to be punished, she did not.”
“I think Dikshit was worn out during the last months of her regime,” says Sidharth Mishra, author of Capital Phenomenon: A Political History of Delhi, 1998-2009, which had Ms Dikshit on its cover. “She was unable to communicate to the people the logic of power tariff in Delhi, which is India’s lowest but was still exploited by AAP as if it were very high. She could also not explain that she was not responsible for the inflation and price rise.”
Remarking on Mr Kejriwal’s lingo — his interviews and speeches are speckled with words common to most urban Indians, such as “setting”, “khundak” (grudge) and “panga” (provocation) — Ms Dikshit says, “This is not my language. I think Mister Kejriwal talked so much about corruption that people started feeling finally there here was a messiah who would get rid of it. But when it comes to responsibility, my impression is that Mister Kejriwal evades and circumvents.” This is a charge levelled at Mr Kejriwal by many of his critics, especially following his dramatic resignation as chief minister.
This abrupt relinquishing of power is a political development that could lead to re-elections in Delhi, a scenario that contains a range of conjectures. One of them is Ms Dikshit returning to lead her party in the campaign. If the Congress wins, however remote that possibility appears, she could become chief minister for the fourth time. Unwilling to go public about her hopes for the immediate future, Dikshit says, “I’m happy as I am. Let me go through today.”
“Tomorrow is another day,” I say.
“Yes,” she replies, perhaps aware of the delicious possibilities of another chance.
Note: A few days after my meeting with Sheila Dikshit, she was appointed as the governor of Kerala.
[This is the 82nd portrait of Mission Delhi project]
Delhi’s last empress