Many still call Sheila Dikshit Delhi’s last empress. It’s not difficult to understand why. The 79-year-old politician literally ran the Capital for 15 years, during which time she thrice led the Congress party to a victory.
This was until 2013, when the Congress’s received a major drubbing tally in the assembly elections. Dikshit herself lost her constituency of New Delhi to Arvind Kejriwal by a huge margin of 22,000 votes.
Proud as she of accomplishing what she did in her tenure, Dikshit is not the one to shy from accepting mistakes she made. She is also not the one to mince words about the current political climate in the country.
In her autobiography, “Citizen Delhi – My Times, My Life”, Dikshit not only allows readers a glimpse into her personal and political life, but also writes at length about the ‘politics of optics’ that has gripped India in the last four years, and the impact it has had on it as a democracy.
Ahead of the book’s release, Youth Ki Awaaz caught up with the three-time Delhi CM for a candid chat:
Shikha Sharma (SS): You have, undoubtedly, been Delhi’s most successful Chief Minister. From bringing in CNG to the Delhi metro, your 15-year tenure changed the face of Delhi. But in election 2013, you lost. What happened?
Sheila Dikshit (SD): There were a few factors behind our loss. One, the central government, which also was a Congress government, was not doing too well during that time. With the 2G scam, it wasn’t a good feeling with the central government. Naturally, that had an impact on Delhi. Second, was that Mr Kejriwal gave promises which were not to be fulfilled, could not be fulfilled. Today, we know those promises were false, impractical promises. I didn’t believe it in the beginning, but people actually swallowed it up and said, yes this could happen. The third, there probably was a sense of fatigue with our government. I took it for granted, or for that matter, my party also took it for granted, that work is there for everybody to see. We were quite confident that the citizens of Delhi would see our work. We also weren’t as aggressive against Mr Kejriwal as we should have been.
SS: You have seen Indian politics closely since the last few decades. Do you believe in the idea of a rational voter, especially in the light of what happened in Delhi in 2013, where like you mention, your performance was all to see, and yet you were thrown out of power?
SD: I would say that there are committed voters. I am not so sure whether they are rational. You have used a word I am not able to identify people with. Then, there are voters who are looking for who are looking for something different. Also, there are voters who are tired of the system or the inefficiency of a government
I also feel the media plays a very large role in all of this. The common man doesn’t know how to think for himself or herself. They just think – television mein ye aa gaya, akhbaar mein yeh likh dia, so these are the kind of influences that work. But there have been waves, like what happened with Kejriwal. And it’s a democracy. People have the right in a democracy to want change.
SS: How do you assess the performance of AAP?
SD: The Kejriwal government is just terrible. They are clearly not interested in governance. They are only interested in misguiding people. And a lot of theatrics. What Mr Kejriwal and his party came up with is no longer real – it’s all promises and dreams, when they gave the impression they were different. The final thing is that they are fighting against the Constitution. They think they are above the Constitution. They should know that Delhi is not a full state, its a union territory, and it has limited powers. The LG is an active administrator, has to be, because that is what Delhi’s set-up is. So, if you don’t want to work within the framework of the Constitution, then naturally you are in trouble.
SS: My next question deals with just this: the troubling, painful relationship this government has with the Lieutenant Governor. You were Delhi’s CM for 15 years. Tell me, is the relationship supposed to be so difficult?
SD: If you don’t work in tandem with and in a friendly manner with the governor, then you are in for trouble. When our government came in 1998, there was a governor who was appointed by the BJP in the Centre. But, we got along very well. We made it a point to meet him every week, and whatever he said, if it was good, we abided it. And the relationship was such that if he asked for anything, and if it was nothing unreasonable, we did. You see, it is not a relationship of conflict, it is a relationship of being together.
SS: Interesting that you say BJP, because the perception amongst some right now is that because the government at the Centre is largely BJP, they want to bring AAP down, that there is vendetta politics at play here. What would you say to that?
A: It’s a very wrong perception. Because remember, Delhi is the capital of this country. It’s not just the capital, it is the home of the central government. There is no conspiracy like they (AAP) are making it out to be. The Centre would like Delhi to be as good as any other world-class city, because they (Centre) also have a vested interest. So what is there to have a conflict about? If you can associate yourself, and approach yourself in a friendly manner with the government of India, things happen. How did we bring in CNG? How did we bring in the metro? How did we bring in greenery all around?
SS: What is your assessment of Modi sarkar’s performance in the last 4 years? Do you think the PM should at least be more vocal in criticising incidents of communal violence and lynchings?
SD: Modi Sarkar is all talk at the moment. It is all talk and no action. Or at least, the action is not felt. And in a government, unless things are felt and perceived, they are just announcements. That’s my impression of Modi Sarkar.
I absolutely agree (with the second question). Because otherwise, the impression that it gives is that you are accepting it.
SS: From the Modi Sarkar to the Congress. You have seen Congress from very close quarters. A thing the Congress has been criticized over and over again on, in the last few years is the dynastic politics the party has come to be associated with. What would you say to that?
SD: What is dynasty? Because at the end of the day, that very dynasty person is being elected by the people. It’s not that they have come there on their own. They get elected. Nobody can say India is a weak democracy. So I don’t get why everyone says all this. If I don’t want to vote for them, I don’t vote for them. It’s your privilege. People didn’t vote for them this time, so they are out of government. Next time, they might vote for them. They will be in government. They have never tried to beat any system. Or any rule or regulation. They have been elected by the people.
SS: Do you think the Congress needs to do anything to combat this image of this dynastic party that it has come to be associated with?
SD: The Congress doesn’t need to combat it. Why did BJP choose Mr Modi for their leader? BJP chose him for who he was. Because he won them an election. And he will probably be their leader in the next election. So why do you hit us on this? This family, or generations of this family, have done good to India. Who got all this technology that we use today? Rajiv Gandhi. Who brought the agricultural revolution? The food revolution? Indira Gandhi. I remember standing in queue for even a small amount of bread, or milk. You don’t see all this anymore. Whose development has this been? It’s Congress’s development.
Because you (referring to BJP) are our enemy, you are our competitor, you say what you want to. But you can’t run away with things. You can’t say Nehru is not good.
SS: But that’s exactly what is happening right now… isn’t it?
SD: I think people should criticize this. It happened 50 or 60 years ago, but it’s history, it’s fact. The foundation of India today was laid by Nehru. And Sardar Patel together. Now, to twist history and say that all of Kashmir would have been India’s had Patel been the PM…. (They forget) Sardar Patel did all work to remove all kings and queens and making India into one big democracy. How did India become a democratic country? Because of the Congress’s thinking. Not because of the BJP’s thinking, I am sorry to say.
SS: It is what politics has become today. And you also talk about this, at some length, in your book – the politics of optics. From Kejriwal to Modi, its all performance. A factor that played into Congress’s loss, apart from the ones you mentioned, is that Congress wasn’t able to market itself well. And that’s what politics has become a lot about right now – marketability. What more does the Congress need to do?
SD: The Congress is now using the media. And the Congress’s history is a very glorious history. Even the worst thing that is said about Indira Gandhi is that she brought about the emergency, But she apologized for the emergency. And came back with a thumping majority after that, which means people voted her back.
What is the BJP doing? The other day I saw that prices have come down, but everything that a common person consumes is just getting expensive. We all know, anyone who reads the newspapers knows that newspapers are being bought, that there is certain news you can publish, certain you can’t. In India, there’s a state of emergency now. And for what?
The interview was edited for brevity and clarity.