Dr. Sheila Dikshit
Indranil Das & Deepak Kaistha speak to Dr. Sheila Dikshit about her venture into politics and the successful milestones thereon.
Being the Chief Minister of Delhi guarantees that one is always in the limelight, and more so in the era of 24x7 ‘breaking news’. Dr. Sheila Dikshit who is in her third term as Chief Minister of the city-state, has possibly been one of the most successful chief ministers in recent times, and has handled the pressure and media focus with utmost efficiency, dignity and grace. She is also seen by many in Delhi as an agent of positive change, the person who has helped make Delhi a much less polluted and more liveable city in the last few years. We have been always intrigued by Dr. Dikshit who seems to be equally at home in an art gallery as she is at a political rally, and in our interview, we wanted to understand what drove her to keep achieving against all odds. Excerpts from the interview:
Q. How did politics happen to you?
A: Like all major decisions in many people’s lives, certainly in mine, it was totally unplanned. I was far away from politics and came from a family with civil services background. We grew up in a generation where we were able to get the last glimpses of Mahatma Gandhi. In college, we grew up seeing Pandit Nehru and knew that if the front page of the newspaper had a photo of Pt. Nehru smiling, it meant that India is smiling.
I did my MA in 1959 and I had civil services, nursing, teaching, and other such conventional options. Personally, I wanted to become a teacher but my parents insisted that I sit for the IAS exams. I took the easier way out by marrying an IAS officer instead!
My political journey started in Kannauj in UP, soon after the sudden death of Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Since my husband’s side of the family had a good relationship with the Gandhi family, I was a little aware of the processes. After Mrs. Gandhi’s death, Mr. Rajiv Gandhi asked me to contest in the elections. I knew nothing about politics. Apart from my father-in-law who was the then governor of West Bengal, my sister and brother-in-law helped me in the campaign. The results came and I won, and there I was making my way into the parliament as an MLA. I was awestruck by my victory. I became familiar with politics at national level after the party split.
Q. Do share your feeling when you entered the Parliament for first time.
A: Honestly, I could not open my mouth. My feet were wobbly. I was really awestruck and never thought of getting into those portals. But there has been no looking back then.
Q. How has the Parliament changed over the years?
A: There were a lot more debates in those days than today. The quality of speaking was excellent with stalwarts like Mr. Somnath Chatterjee, Mr. A.B. Vajpayee and Mr. L.K. Advani, with very good debates. We used to read about the parliament during the Pt. Nehru days, and the standard of debates was even better. But today, the parliament is all about shouting, walking-off and there are no constructive debates.
Q. Having tasted success in both the national and the state level governance, what do you prefer more?
A: I would say state is better because you are closer to the people. You are closer to failure and success. You can really make your own policies and the cutting-edge is here.
Q. How do you keep your people and the bureaucrats motivated?
A: Delhi is a city-state. So we do not have the police, the land or the NMDC under us. Delhi is a set up under the special article of the parliament. So the complexities of governance are higher, but I must say that the bureaucracy is really responsive here. We were entering into a territory that was new and we were not sure about it, but the results have come. People understand the limitations of the government and vice versa. Also Delhi is a macrocosm of India, where we have people from everywhere in the country, be it West Bengal or Kerala. There are five language academies here - Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Bhojpuri and Maithili. This makes Delhi home to everyone. The culture of Delhi keeps evolving. So the bureaucracy in Delhi has to be sensitive to these diversity issues. Once the bureaucracy got the message that we were serious about making Delhi a better place to live, and that we wanted to go back to the people and ask for votes based on our performance every five years, they adequately delivered.
Q. How hard was it to change policies through your projects?
A: The most important thing is to take people in confidence. The privatisation of power was a result of at least a year and half of negotiations with power distributors and authorities. Delhi Vidyut Parishad (DVP) held many seminars with people and after consultations, experts came out with a defined pattern.
Another example is CNG. People first said that it was because the courts had ordered me to do so. Indeed they had, but we had to meet the people and business houses and get the stakeholders together. The Tatas and Ashok Leyland came forward and helped in placing three to four kms of CNG pipelines. People understood its value despite those long queues outside gas stations.
Then there is the ‘Green Delhi’ programme for which we involved children, housewives and NGOs in a big way. Delhi is one of the greenest cities in the world. It needed things like going to them, talking and appealing to them. I believe governments across India are good at making policies but we lack in the implementation of those policies.
Q. Your thoughts on a structured group in an unstructured party?
A: I came into the position of leading this party in November 1998 with a mammoth 3/4th majority in Delhi, which earlier was a bastion of the BJP. We motivated our party workers and we all got together. That I did not have a baggage in the city politics was a great advantage. I was here to win an election, and we did it! When I had to first choose the ministers for the state, I did not know anyone intimately. In the first one or two years, they termed us the ‘aaloo pyaaz government’ (high prices of potatoes and onions). Second time around, some called me an outsider, but on our hat-trick victory, all critics were shut.
Q. Do highlight some of your government’s achievements that you are proud of?
A: When the inflation rates were above 9 to 10 per cent in the rest of the country, Delhi had 8.7 per cent, being the least in the country. We also had 170 odd trucks distributing ‘atta’ at Rs. 130 per kg in 12 kg bags. It may not appear much for us as it is only a difference of Rs. 40 to 50, but to those people there is the message that the government cares for them and it is a saving for them. There are 80 ‘kendriya bhandars’ with reasonable prices without any black market. We are planning to raise these up to 100 by end of this year.
The government was spending Rs. 900 per child on education, but the outputs were really poor with 33 to 35 per cent passing rate. We picked up some of the best officers committed towards people and results. The result was an improved 80 to 85 per cent success rates. We are 0.01 per cent better than private schools. The next idea is to ensure that those students do not become bookworms. We want to build holistic personalities that include skills like arts, drama, music, etc. with more global awareness. Another concern was the abysmal girl to boy ratio in schools which was 890:1000. It was the worst in South Delhi which is supposed to be the richer part of the city. So we thought we had address this and started the ‘ladli scheme’. It is for families with an income of Rs. 1 lakh or less. We told them that the girls should go to school and we will provide them with uniform, etc. and when she passes out of school, we will pay her Rs. 1 lakh. Within 3 to 3.5 years, the girl to boy ratio was 104-100. The Planning Commission was surprised at the speed of this transformation.
Every programme has a targeted audience. If the bus fare is raised by Rs. 2, it would not matter to you and I, but someone who travels everyday in buses will have a problem. Similarly, you do not need to buy ‘atta’ from ‘kendriya bhandars’ at Rs. 130, but your cook will.
Q. Your philosophy on leadership?
A: For me, a leader is a person for whom people begin to feel that he/she is capable of taking risks. The greatest requirement for a leader, however, is ‘communication’. If you are unable to communicate, you cannot lead or manage. It is important to get the right communication every time, be it while meeting a widow about her grievances or a rich businessman.
Q. What lies ahead for liberalised holistic education here, like US where 50 per cent of the courses are liberalised?
A: There is certainly an introduction of skills in schools now that include vocational courses like painting, carpentry, agriculture etc. We also have ‘stree shakti’ for women, where we have women coming over to learn skills like computers etc. There is also free treatment in hospitals under ‘Indira Stree Shakti’. We are also trying to increase hygiene awareness by lowering taxations on sanitary napkins. These are a kind of awakening of desires which have been suppressed and people generally do not think about them. These are small things, but if you look at the bigger picture, they make a lot of difference.
Q. Does the ‘Incredible India’ creative campaign continue?
A: Definitely! This has had an impact. I have spent a lot of time visiting schools and spreading awareness about growing trees, cleanliness and recycling of waste. We have established recycling plants for recycling used paper.
Q. The leader you admire the most?
A: Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. He was the leader of his times and was ahead of his times as a political leader. I also admire Dr. Manmohan Singh. He has taken India forward in a big way. Another would be Sonia Gandhi. She is a woman of deep understanding. A leader who started off hesitatingly but has a legacy today. Personally, she has great poise.
Q. Your thoughts on today’s society and generation?
A: I think every generation is different. My children are different and my grand children are very different. We need to learn from each other. You cannot really say that my generation was the best.
Q. Thoughts on work-life balance?
A: I read a lot of books, watch movies, and also go to theatres and music sessions. I also do shopping when I want to. I take holidays as well, but being a people’s person, I start missing them after a week or so.