state polls DELHI

Metro Mater

From being a political lightweight to being the only winning Congress chief minister, Sheila Dikshit has redefined Delhi politics

By Lakshmi Iyer

Five years ago, Sheila Dikshit was the one leader every Congressperson loved to hate. The Ambika Sonis, Jagdish Tytlers, R.K. Dhawans, H.K.L. Bhagats and Sajjan Kumars considered her an outsider and a lightweight who had no place in the upper echelons of the party's Delhi unit. Her dismal defeat in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections which she contested from the East Delhi parliamentary constituency only lent weight to such doubts. Yet, when Dikshit was chosen to lead the government in Delhi after the Congress trounced the BJP in the assembly elections later that year, there was not a murmur of protest from the self-proclaimed heavyweights. That, of course, had a lot to do with the unstinted support of party President Sonia Gandhi.

POPULAR DIVIDEND: Dikshit's regime was perceived to be pro-people, no-nonsense and accessible

Much has changed in five years. And not just Delhi's landscape. Last week, as Delhi went to polls, punters were not even taking bets on the chances of the BJP wresting power from the Congress. It was an election where psephologists were redundant. Long before voters lined up at polling booths on December 1, the BJP leaders had admitted in private that theirs was a lost cause.

If Delhi voted Dikshit to power for a second time, it has got a lot to do with the popular perception that civic life has improved considerably in the past five years. Air pollution-10 years ago Delhi was one of the worst polluted cities in the world-is down by 30 per cent after public transport was ordered to switch to compressed natural gas a year ago. The 8 km metro made commuting a lot less tiresome for citizens; wayward three-wheeler drivers were tamed and there were fewer power cuts following privatisation.

Not all these were Dikshit's initiatives. CNG in public transport was forced on the Delhi Government by the Supreme Court. Yet, Dikshit was able to claim some of the credit since she was perceived as heading a no-nonsense, pro-people government. In the days before Diwali, she paid surprise visits to vegetable marts to ensure there was no shortfall and this gesture left little doubt that she was the people's chief minister. As pre-poll surveys indicated the Congress would win a minimum of 50 of the 70 seats, second-generation leaders in the BJP seemed reluctant to challenge Dikshit, for fear of endangering their political careers. Whatever remained of the mock fight was to be waged by a tired and uninspiring Madan Lal Khurana. And the battle-worn veteran simply could not connect with young, modern Delhi. "Our biggest advantage was that the BJP had projected Khurana as its chief minister," says Ahmed Patel, Sonia's political secretary. A Punjabi, Khurana was seen as espousing the interest of the trading classes, a put off for about three-fourths of the city's voters hailing from Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Bihar and Haryana. In contrast Dikshit, a Punjabi Khatri by birth and the daughter-in-law of the late Uttar Pradesh Brahmin leader Uma Shankar Dikshit, struck a chord with Delhi's migrant population.

Won from GOLE MARKET in Delhi
Defeated Poonam Azad (BJP) by 12,935 votes
Total number of assembly seats: 70
Congress            47             52*
BJP            20             15*
Others             3               3*
775 miles
45 rallies
10 days
Rs 3 cr spent
"Dekhi sabki leela, Sabse acchi Sheila"
Sheila Dikshit's OSD and fellow Punjabi from Rajasthan. Influenced ticket distribution and ran campaign on a tight budget.
The chief minister's sister. Managed the Congress campaign in Dikshit's Gole Market constituency.

If Khurana's Punjabi factor reduced the challenge by half, the quality of the opposition campaign also boosted the Congress. "They relied on a negative campaign and that did not go down well with the voters," points out Pawan Khera, Dikshit's political aide. The BJP inserted 22 advertisements while the Congress just put out five advertisements in 10 national dailies. Adds Patel: "The BJP's half-hearted attempts at statehood and regularisation of 1,071 unauthorised colonies for which they even passed a Union cabinet resolution way back in 2000 have exposed the hollowness of their promises."

The Congress campaign was low-key and centred around Dikshit's clean image. Her rivals within the party protested that even her ministers were not projected, but such protests made no difference as it was evident that Dikshit had Sonia's backing. "Our first priority was to consolidate the goodwill generated by the Government. We took care to deny tickets to even sitting MLAs with a certain reputation at the risk of losing a seat or two," points out Khera. Thus, Tughlakabad MLA Sishpal was denied a ticket and contested as an independent and lost.

The Dikshit strategy was to tap the popular dividends of her Bhagidari system or people's participation in governance. Representatives of 1,300 resident welfare associations (RWA), which in turn has 25 lakh participants, are thrilled about the access to government functionaries and don't mind doing half the work the officials are supposed to do. This network of RWAs appears to have backed the Congress in the polls. The Bhagidari system has its share of critics and according to Sanjay Kaul of People Action, an NGO which headed a campaign to tame truant autorickshaw drivers, the system has actually covered up the non-performance of the Dikshit regime. "Nowhere else in the world has a government weakened a people's movement like this. It has virtually colonised the RWAs."

The results of the third elections to the Delhi Assembly show that such opinions do not cut much ice with the voters, who have once again overwhelmingly placed their faith in the genial aunty next door.