Sheila Dikshit: Delhi’s Marie Antoinette Or Iron Lady?

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The nominee Sheila Dikshit is hoping to buck the antiincumbency factor once more
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

Delhi is a decidedly different city from when Sheila Dikshit first became its Chief Minister in 1998. In that election, the BJP got its worst ever drubbing from Delhi’s voters. Of the 70 assembly seats, the Congress got 51. Delhi was a city that had been declared a ‘state’ only five years before that, in 1993. It had already seen a quick succession of three chief ministers from the BJP – Madan Lal Khurana being the first, Sahib Singh Verma the second, followed by a brief stint by Sushma Swaraj in 1998.

When Dikshit took over, Delhi did not have a sprawl of American style shopping malls. And it did not have the metro. Work on the metro in fact began just a couple of months before she took over. It had been commissioned in 1995. Once the first passengers stepped onto the metro line from Shahdara to Tis Hazari in 2002, it was clear that Sheila Dikshit would win the next election one year later.  And so in 2003, she got a clear majority, but slightly less seats – 47 of 70. And in 2008, after a decade in power, she won yet again, but with a slowly slipping majority – 42 of the 70 seats.  Still, until the last election, Sheila Dikshit and the Congress party MLAs had effectively decimated the BJP at the assembly level.  An increased migrant population in the city – from UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Haryana and Rajasthan – added to her vote base as the Congress party was seen as the more effective ally in the face of a BJP that had carried out extensive demolitions of illegal and unauthorised colonies in its tenure, which is where the bulk of migrants lived.

During the present term, however, Delhi has become a theatre of discontent, with unprecedented outpourings on the street against corruption, and then against the Nirbhaya rape. The anti-corruption protests in fact owe their origin to Delhi hosting the Commonwealth Games in 2010. From the building of stadiums to ordering the equipment for gyms and telecast rights – every single deal pertaining to the hosting of the games was tarnished by the thick black soot of corruption. The total bill is still not entirely clear, but many estimates put it to over Rs 2300 crore worth of embezzled funds. Whilst the blame for this was laid squarely at the door of the organising committee headed by Suresh Kalmadi and no dots joined back to Sheila Dikshit, many saw this as a mere technicality. The mood on the street was that dirty deals could not have been done with such impunity without any of that dirt sticking to the three-time Chief Minister. The public anger on the street was fuelled and effectively harnessed by the anti-corruption Anna movement that finally led last year to the emergence of Sheila Dikshit’s most effective rival yet – Arvind Kejriwal, the embodiment of people’s anger.

Sheila Dikshit’s own tepid responses to Kejriwal’s vital and visceral anger has distanced her further from the electorate. Her statements at her press meets, where she says defensively – “Let them prove their charges of corruption”, smack of a sense of entitlement that politicians who are about to lose their place lapse into. The tired defence and dismissal of Kejriwal’s accusations contrast sharply with his acerbic and passionate rebuttals. Come 4 December, she will contest against him head-to-head from the constituency of New Delhi.

But even if the Kejriwal factor is set aside, this time Sheila Dikshit has other factors against her. Migrants – her standard supporters –  were tarnished with the sweeping brush of crime after the Delhi gangrape when Dikshit famously said to the media: There is a relationship between Delhi’s high crime rate, particularly against women and migrants who “can come into Delhi, commit a crime and just run back again.” It’s a remark that stung migrants badly as they’ve been recruited to build the very pillars of what Dikshit calls her big achievements – the metro, flyovers, stadiums and malls.

Having pissed off a good chunk of her electorate, there is yet another act of omission that has swelled the anti-incumbency wave against her.  When Delhi’s people poured out onto the streets of India Gate and Jantar Mantar after the brutal gangrape of 16 December 2012, they met with stony silence from Dikshit and ugly tear gas and police batons. When Dikshit did come out and speak, not only was it too little too late, it wasn’t what people wanted to hear. “My own daughter is unsafe…” and further “I am not satisfied with the law and order… I wouldn’t be able to judge whether security has improved after 16 December or not.” This was yet another instance of Dikshit deflecting blame from herself. Technically speaking, Sheila Dikshit was right. Delhi is in a strange half state-half union territory avatar where law and order is not under her but under the Lieutenant Governor. But will this convince her electorate? With the loud banging on the gates and police pickets on the streets of Jantar Mantar and outside her home, Dikshit’s slow, reasoned defences have only painted her more as Delhi’s Marie Antoinette before the storming of the Bastille.

Opinion polls still swing between giving the Congress a fourth chance at power in the country’s capital; and giving Sheila Dikshit a thumbs down. But what is amply clear is that after a decade and a half of virtually uncontested rule, Sheila Dikshit, at the age of 75, is set to face her toughest contest ever.

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