Free Press Journal

Citizen Delhi: My Times, My Life by Sheila Dikshit: Review

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Title: Citizen Delhi: My Times, My Life

Author: Sheila Dixit

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 175


Price: Rs 599

History is replete with advice about autobiographies but, perhaps, the best came from Sam Goldwyn: “I don’t think anybody should write his autobiography until after he’s dead.” All such advice notwithstanding, and at the prodding of her family, Mrs Sheila Dikshit – three-time Chief Minister of Delhi, preceded by a term as MoS for Parliamentary Affairs and the PMO, and a five-month tenure as Governor of Kerala – comes out with an account of her ‘times and life’. Along the way, we get a glimpse of Sheila Dikshit, the person: The young college girl with her dreams, the post-graduate student in love, the bureaucrat’s wife, the MP and the CM, her relationships with figures known and unknown and, above all, the grace and grit that shows through in various situations.

One such figure is Uma Shankar Dikshit (her father-in-law), freedom fighter and confidant of Nehru-Indira-Rajiv, Governor of Karnataka (1975-77) and West Bengal (1984-86) – and a man who could not envisage himself in any other political party, and believed that wealth-creation and a political career should not go together. At Sanjay Gandhi’s emergence, he, “like many senior congressmen, experienced a discomfort…” However, Sheila Dikshit’s own comments on the Sanjay factor or on the Emergency are missing.

The other figure is her husband, Vinod, an IAS officer, and through him the reader is given a brief but telling look at the life of a young and dedicated civil servant. In their growing closeness in college, she brings out the caste-based reactions… and the ultimate reconciliation. About Vinod himself, she admires the way in which he “wore his power and privilege lightly”. Further, into the story, she tells of how Vinod, with least regard for his own safety – and of their children – helped save people during the 1984 riots in Delhi. Again, her views or reactions to the atrocities are missing (she was a Minister at that time). An untimely heart-attack at the age of 48 claimed Vinod’s life while travelling in a train when Sheila Dikshit had just arrived in New York as head of the Indian delegation to the UN Commission on Status of Women.

As for Sheila herself, the eldest of three daughters, educated in the Convent of Jesus and Mary and Miranda House, she grew up in a ‘liberal’ home, married into the ‘seemingly conservative’ Dikshit household; these essential differences, she remarks, prepared her for dealing with people from diverse backgrounds and being comfortable in all possible settings. Childhood ambitions did not include a political career, so when she was asked to join mainstream politics she is filled with doubts, quelled by her husband, who encouraged her with the words: “we will see to it that you have the support you need.” Not quite in character as we understand him till then – either as an individual or as a civil servant. Be that as it may, she won the Lok Sabha seat from Kannauj, and later as the Delhi CM, she received several awards including Best CM of India in 2008 by Journalists Association of India.

She believes that politics “is trying to make the most of possibilities in terms of the work that can be accomplished — and then going to the people on its strength”; giving one’s best without getting entangled in unbridled ambition or self-absorption. Later, with hindsight she would also believe that politics, as an engagement with ideas and people, can be inspiring or it can reduced to banality; “the power of perception is what electoral politics is largely about.”

Delhi has no control over the police force, nor on the Delhi Municipal Council, the DDA and several other key areas. But, she says, the bottom line was that the people of Delhi would not have much patience for a CM enumerating the areas that fell outside her jurisdiction. Thence came the idea of bhagidari, a kind of partnership with the citizens as stakeholders in the development of the city. At a certain level, she says, she wanted to recreate some of what she had experienced as a bureaucrat’s wife: empathy and understanding with the people of the area, replicating that element of empathy at an institutional level so that the politician, bureaucrat and citizen could build a constructive relationship based on ground realities and needs.  It helped immensely. Its effect was best seen in the 2002 election in the Municipal Corporation of New Delhi.  In her third term, interactions through bhagidari dropped significantly; senior officials also stopped attending the meetings, allowing the opposition to woo the vast bhagidari constituency.

During her third term as the Delhi CM, along with the allegations regarding the expenditure during the Commonwealth Games came the 2G bomb, and later the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare. What was needed, she feels, was decisive political management, but the centre ended up looking tentative. The number of scandals increased while inflation touched 9-10%. And ‘Nirbhaya’ happened. AAP came on the promise of ‘sweeping’ Delhi clean.

There is no disappointment or rancour in the recording of her memoirs. But, references, inter alia, to the “leader’s image on every conceivable surface” vis-à-vis a government that remains opaque, and to majoritarianism in various forms, do portray a growing discomfort not limited to the Sheila Dikshit’s of India.