How Sheila Dikshit Joined Politics When Her IAS Husband Couldn’t

Sheila Dikshit opens up about being a reluctant politician & the importance of courtesy, even if it hurts you.

6 min read

(Three time former Delhi chief minister, Shelia Dikshit, passed away on 20 July 2019. This interview is being reposted in that context.)

“I didn’t want to get into politics, I didn’t have the desire,” says India’s longest serving woman chief minister. Sheila Dikshit was a reluctant heir to the veteran Congress leader Uma Shankar Dikshit.

Unlike her son, Dikshit’s entry into politics was not owing to being born into a political family – hence trained into the trade – but effected by her marriage. She recalls:

When the opportunity came after Indira Gandhi died and Rajiv Gandhi wanted me to contest, I was still very hesitant. I was very scared and didn’t know what it was all about. But my father-in-law and my husband encouraged me.

A daughter-in-law is usually not the first choice for passing on political legacies. In her case, however, she was the only choice. Diskhit explains, “We were a family of just myself, my husband and my parents-in-law. There was nobody else to take my father-in-law’s place.”

My husband was in the IAS so he couldn’t get into that. Even if he’d got into that, we would have to stop it because who was going to earn the bread in the family?
Sheila Dikshit, Former CM, Delhi

Thus, she was the chosen one. She adds, “I wasn’t a committed politician or a politician who wanted to be a politician but circumstantially I became one.”

Politics Is Not a Bed of Roses

Dikshit’s three terms as the CM of Delhi were not only iconic, they were also mired in some of the biggest controversies of recent times. From the Commonwealth Games ‘scam’ to the Nirbhaya protests, Dikshit saw it all. She says philosophically:

In politics, these are things that are bound to happen. Criticism sometimes is more vocal than appreciation.

And criticised she was, even by her own party members. It is worth remembering that she was asked to contest from East Delhi constituency in the 1998 assembly elections – an area she knew nothing about. She lost to BJP’s Lal Bihari Tiwari. In her recent memoir, ‘Citizen Delhi’, Dikshit talks about that election. Was it an error of judgment or was she deliberately propped up as a losing candidate? More importantly, how does it feel to be let down by one’s own colleagues?

Dikshit looks back on those times without rancour. “I didn’t feel let down. I thought that the party was giving it to somebody who was not familiar with the area. I had never even been to East Delhi. I have always lived in this part (South) of Delhi. So there was never an occasion for me to go to that side.”

It was a totally alien place for me. I did resist it, I did say I don’t know anything about it. But it was a party mandate. So I did it.
Sheila Dikshit, Former CM, Delhi

It was not the last time that Dikshit would bow to the will of her party. As a committed Congress member, she even took flak for the failings of her party without complaining, like during the Nirbhaya protests. Dikshit shares, “The central government, the home ministry, and the Police were really directly responsible for it. But sometimes you have to keep quiet because it is not wise, it is not courteous to blame somebody else for something that has happened in your city.”

Was ‘Nirbhaya’ her biggest challenge as the Chief Minister? Dikshit responds cryptically. “There are so many Nirbhayas happening these days. Nobody does anything about it.” She, however, is thankful that there was no such thing as gau-rakshaks during her tenure.

These gau rakshaks and all... This is something politically motivated. It has a political angle to it. Fortunately these things were not there and thank God for no distractions of this kind!
Sheila Dikshit, Former CM, Delhi

But there was Arvind Kejriwal.

The AAP campaign against corruption proved to be Dikshit’s biggest nemesis. Financial irregularities during the preparations of 2010 Commonwealth Games gave Kejriwal a ready platform to launch his attack. Dikshit recalls the slug-fest around the Commonwealth with sadness. “I must tell you that I felt very disappointed. I still feel very disappointed because the Commonwealth Games when they came up eventually in Delhi were one of the best Commonwealth games in the world.”

She also expresses dissatisfaction at the way the UPA government behaved then.

The government of India was a little apologetic about having accepted the games. Why it had to be apologetic, I don’t understand, because the whole face of Delhi changed after the games. Everybody said, ‘why you were spending so much money?’ Well, the money was going to be spent for Delhi. It wasn’t just for the Commonwealth Games.
Sheila Dikshit, Former CM, Delhi

C for Coterie

After corruption, another C determinedly hounding the Congress party is ‘coterie’ and Dikshit is alleged to be a part of the Gandhi coterie.

She’s quick to refute.

No no no no… we have Congress all over the country and there’s no coterie there. Yes, we do have a family in which all Congressmen believe and they’ve never let us down. What about the coterie of Mr Modi and Amit Shah? There are all coteries there. To put the blame only on the Congress... The word blame is wrong. It is just a style, which they have adopted just as much.
Sheila Dikshit, Former CM, Delhi

It is the coterie that has kept dynasty rule alive. Shahzad Poonawalla’s ouster from the party owing to his questioning of Rahul Gandhi’s elevation to the post of party president suggests that nepotism seems to be an accepted norm. Dikshit defends the decision.

Rahul Gandhi was the Vice President. He’s become the President. And it was a unanimous decision. It was the decision taken by the working committee and all congressmen, who are members of the Congress – I don’t say supporters of the Congress, I say ‘members’ who are eligible for casting a vote. Now I want to ask, if the party decides on something, why should anybody else object to it? Because nothing wrong was done and it wasn’t anything that was out of the way.
Sheila Dikshit, Former CM, Delhi
Sheila Dikshit opens up about being a reluctant politician & the importance of courtesy, even if it hurts you.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi
(Photo Courtesy: PTI)

Was it equally easy, then, when her son, Sandip Dikshit, wanted to join politics? She shares, “Well, my son wanted to come into politics. I was a little hesitant about it. Because I was already the Chief Minister here. I was hesitant because I didn’t know whether Mrs Sonia Gandhi would think it was the right thing to do – mother asking for her son’s ticket. But since he was keen, I picked up the courage and wrote to her.”

And thus began Sandip Dikshit’s political career.


No Looking Back in Anger

Dikshit’s active political career ended with her accepting the position of Governor of Kerala, an appointment she looked forward to as a holistic retreat. She offered her resignation after BJP formed the government in the Centre.

How was it being a woman politician holding the fort of governance in India’s capital for three terms? Did she think she was a doing an absent man’s job? Dikshit responds with a laugh and says:

I don’t even want to think that I’m a man! Being a woman politician has its advantages and disadvantages. The greatest disadvantage is a kind of a lack of confidence in a woman’s capability and capacity to be able to fulfill what’s required to be fulfilled. But on the other hand, there’s also this feeling, ‘here’s a woman, she will understand, she’ll be more receptive.’

She tosses a question back, “I’d like to ask you if you have found a woman politician who has been a failure? You may lose an election, that’s different, but no woman has been considered a failure.”

They say that real queens adjust each others’ crowns. In the same spirit, Dikshit concludes the interview with, “Whether it’s Mamata Banerjee or anyone else, women do live up to expectations and are as adept at ruling as they are at anything else.”

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