Sheila Dikshit’s Last Drive on Barapullah: A Road She Fought For
Manmohan Singh told Sheila Dikshit that only she could save the Commonwealth Games.
(This story was originally published on 26 July 2019 and is being republished from The Quint's archives on the death anniversary of former Delhi CM and Congress leader Sheila Dikshit.)
The car was passing through the Barapullah flyover, on my way from Delhi to Haridwar, as I held the ashes of my mentor Sheila Dikshit. It is from here, she would often see the Rahim Khan tomb and think of ways of lighting it. She would notice the railings and call up the relevant officer to get it repainted. Above all, this particular flyover, like many other CWG projects always brings back memories of the determination with which Sheilaji got after getting projects completed on time.
The Barapullah flyover was inordinately delayed. Clearances from Delhi Urban Arts Commission were not coming through. Railways held back their clearances too. What was originally slated to be an underground corridor finally had to be built as a flyover, running late by two years. From going there twice a day to deploying officers there round the clock, she made sure this flyover got completed and delivered 10 days before the Games began. Same was the situation of the Salimgarh Fort Road, behind Raj Ghat.
‘Sheilaji, If There’s One Person Who Can Save the Games, It is You’
She was dealing with an inactive Union Sports Minister, whose predecessor was mostly sabotaging the games, an adverse media, that was constantly deriving devilish pleasure in looking for chinks even where there were none, and a PMO that intervened, when it got cornered by a letter written to the Cabinet Secretary a couple of weeks before the opening ceremony by Michael Fennell, the Commonwealth Games Federation president, urging action in response to the Games Village being "seriously compromised." He conveyed to the government the shock of his team officials at the state of the accommodation for the players.
She got a call from the Prime Minister requesting her to take charge of the Games Village. ‘Sheilaji, if there’s one person who can save the Games, it is you’, said the Prime Minister.
KM Chandrasekhar, Cabinet Secretary, TKA Nair, Principal Secretary to Prime Minister sought an urgent appointment with Sheilaji, to discuss the crisis of the Games Village. It was otherwise under the jurisdiction of the DDA under the Ministry of Urban Development. Delhi government, technically, had no role in its construction or upkeep.
She promptly agreed and took us all straight to the Village at four in the afternoon, her Chief Secretary, Principal Secretary and other officers in tow. We went and saw the state of affairs of the accommodation. Being on the river bed, water had seeped into the basements. There were mosquitoes, rats, and cockroaches everywhere. That damp smell and even more dampening television activism convinced me that the Games were doomed and might even get canceled.
Trusted Soldier of Congress, Efficient Manager of Games
Sheilaji did not have the luxury of indulging in such thoughts. Her mind was ticking fast, as she negotiated her way through water and flowing muck. She asked the various department heads the estimated number of labourers required to ready the flats in a week, drew up an emergency organisational structure to ensure corrective accountability. Just as the operations began, the rains too began with a fury.
Two young officers were appointed by Nair and Chandrasekhar, to coordinate between the various agencies. They would be there dumbstruck, doing nothing, watching Sheila Dikshit tie up between agencies and getting them to work. Delhi bureaucrats had mischievously code-named them as tweedledum and tweedledee.
She called CEOs of five star hotels in the city for a meeting, requesting them to adopt a tower each for housekeeping until the Games got over. They happily agreed and immediately took charge of the towers. Fennel and his team were surprised at the swift turnaround of the Village. Sheila Dikshit had saved the nation a huge embarrassment.
Those were not days when leaders could get away labelling those shaming the govt as anti nationals. Headlines like ‘Game of Shame’ ‘India Shamed’ were highly motivated and misplaced. She refused to either get bogged down by such attacks or label the section of the media as ‘anti-national.’ She treated it as a challenge. Her moment of glory came when thousands of audience in the Jawahar Lal Nehru Stadium gave her a standing ovation at the opening ceremony of the Games, while booing the president of the Olympic Association.
Betrayed But Not Beaten
Within hours of the closing ceremony of the successfully concluded Games, PMO constituted the Shunglu Committee to look into irregularities in the organisation of the Games. It came as a surprise to her. CAG was already finalising its report on the Games.
Political observers found this decision by the PMO a little out of place.
The report itself was extremely shoddy and smacked of a design to demolish her reputation without any evidence of wrong doing. Unmindful of the proceedings that went in to upgrade the city infrastructure to make it worthy of hosting an international sporting event, the Shunglu report decided that the Barapullah flyover was simply not required.
The report was particularly nasty towards a Principal Secretary - a bright officer who is now advisor to the Governor of a critical state. The officer was so deeply anguished that he contemplated filing a case against VK Shunglu. He was dissuaded by the Cabinet Secretary to do so.
She felt a strong sense of betrayal but stood by her officers like a rock.
And as a testimony to her transparent style of governance, not one charge against Delhi government stood the test of investigations.
The campaign against her government and against UPA picked up steam with an agenda-driven media stoking the fires. The Anna Hazare movement and the support given to it by organisations that are now in power helped build a perception against the Congress Party. Yet, the magnitude of the rout of 2013 was inexplicable.
Road to Reconciliation
In the last two years, she made a habit of going out on a drive to the various projects of her government. Perhaps, that was her reconciliation; perhaps she drew satisfaction from seeing what she had accomplished for the city she loved. She would go to the Signature Bridge and would get upset to see the debris in the river bed. ‘Beta, any news on Metro, phase 4’, she would ask. She would feel helpless. She would get restless. She would feel deeply distressed at seeing the lack of maintenance of the infrastructure, as if someone were defacing a painting, right before the artist.
Sheila Dikshit had an equanimity in her demeanour that did not get visibly affected by victory or defeat. But, deep inside her heart she could not reconcile to the campaign run against her government. She could not comprehend the reason for the 2013 verdict. Why would people defeat a government that had completely transformed the city, just for a promise of a better government? Why would a fast and smooth moving vehicle be abruptly abandoned mid way in favour of a promise of a better car? Perhaps, where she now is, Sheila Dikshit will have better reconciliation than those of us here.
Bon Voyage, Ma’am.
(The writer is the national spokesperson of the Congress party. He tweets @Pawankhera. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quintneither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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