Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Sheila, Sheila all the way

Capital Phenomenon
A Political History of Delhi: 1998-2009
By Sidharth Mishra
Allied Publishers Pvt Ltd
Rs 250/-

Rajesh Singh

At first glance, the cover of the book is a bit mystifying. It promises us a political history of Delhi covering the period 1998-2009, but the blurb on the front flap reduces the scope to the rise and rise of Sheila Dikshit. But then, since no objective analyst can deny the pivotal role she has played in the capital region’s politics, whether it is in keeping the BJP at bay or decimating her rivals within the party, perhaps equating the history of the state over the ten years to the Chief Minister’s personal and political charisma is not such a brazen attempt at eulogy. What makes her even more enigmatic is the manner she has trumped her foes. To borrow a recent phrase of a US official, she has used the scalpel rather than the hammer to floor them, thus escaping the charge of indulging in ruthless politics. That she has become a capital phenomenon, even her adversaries do not deny. What they wish is that the phenomenon ends soon.

Besides projecting Sheila Dikshit’s prowess, the book also serves as a useful reference guide to those interested in Delhi’s politics. Since it is a collection of articles from a column that author Sidharth Mishra has been writing for The Pioneer, it takes the reader to events and people that may now be fading from public memory but are useful to remember for a closer political understanding. The common thread that runs through the collection is an attempt to unravel the Chief Minister’s brand of politics. Interestingly, the author supplements his effort more by quoting instances of how she has over the decade managed to counter opposition from within her own party. It does appear from the book that she faced larger challenges from within than from the opposition. It is a reflection both on how easily the BJP appears to have caved in to her charms and the desperation of local Congress leaders who, with her continued rise, feel more and more marginalized.

Mishra has an interesting observation to make: that Sheila Dikshit gave Delhi to the Congress at a time when party stalwarts elsewhere like Ashok Gehlot and Digvijaya Singh were falling by the wayside and the NDA was on the rise. From taking over for the first time as Chief Minister in 1998 to 2004 by when she had effectively consolidated her hold, the BJP and its allies were on the upswing. As the author says in an article of April 2004, “Last December, when four states went to poll, three ousted the Congress but Delhi retained the Sheila Dikshit-led government”. The achievement becomes even more remarkable when one remembers that just four years before that victory, she was down in the dumps with the Congress losing all the seven Delhi seats in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections. A lesser leader would have collapsed, but Sheila Dikshit emerged stronger from that debacle. In the 2004 parliamentary polls the party under her leadership won back six of the seven seats. The author, in all fairness, credited BJP’s V K Malhotra for his victory from South Delhi, for the “focused work” the veteran leader had put in.

Sheila Dikshit’s detractors may have been stumped by the revival but they were far from done. The author tells us how, even after scripting a grand success, she had to wait for over ten days before the party High Command named her the Chief Minister for a second term. Clearly, her rivals within the party worked overtime to deny her glory in victory. But here the reader is left asking for more. Mishra does not recreate the backstage drama that went on in a bid to deny her the chief ministership – the characters who played the villain and how they were finally overcome.

Mishra counts several more instances when the Chief Minister had to tackle covert and at time open rebellion to her leadership. In some cases, like when her detractor Subbash Chopra was made Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee president or when another opponent Rambabu Sharma was given much prominence, rumours were that the High Command itself was keen to clip her wings. Even high profile leaders like Jagdish Tytler and Ajay Maken, according to the author, are alleged to have played a part in the campaigns to denigrate her leadership.

So much so that, even some bureaucrats in the early days of her chief ministership caused her trouble by failing to follow orders. The author narrates the case of Omesh Saigal, who as Chief Secretary had been reportedly flouting government instructions. Ironically, she found relief under the NDA regime, when her demand for his transfer was promptly accepted by L K Advani who was then Home Minister in the NDA government at the Centre.

If Sheila Dikshit remained right on top despite all the rug-pulling, it was, Mishra says, because she had managed to strike a chord in the hearts of the average Delhi voter, who variously saw in her a dynamic leader, a sympathetic sister and an understanding mother. Despite her elderly woman status, she connected naturally with the younger generation, something that her opponents like M L Khurana failed to do. That is how, the author tells, she managed to project herself as a harbinger of “change in culture”. She spoke the language of development – something that the youth understood and appreciated, and in an interview to the author elaborated on the efforts to bring about a “cultural change in the city environment, administration and politics…Administration does not mean serving certain individuals. It should be for the people at large”.

The author devotes a major part of the book to underline that she succeeded despite various odds. There is no dispute with that. But something must have gone wrong for so many of her early supporters to turn against her. Even if conceding that some of them wanted to push an agenda that was unpalatable and she aborted such efforts, all of her detractors could not have been always wrong. The author could have also brought into focus her drawbacks.

So, far, despite all the scheming and plotting against her, Sheila Dikshit has had the last laugh. The last of these last laughs was when she led the party in Delhi to a resounding victory in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, with the Congress sweeping all the seven seats. But, now she faces a huge challenge to her famed competence: the successful organisation of the Commonwealth Games. Her government is under the scanner for making a mess of Delhi in the garb of modernizing the civic amenities ahead of the games. Deadlines have gone by unmet and there is little evidence yet of her famed strong and decisive hand. Her political foes have been waiting for an opportunity to unmask her enigma. Will the Commonwealth Games provide that occasion? The author will be as eager as any one else for an answer.