“Kejriwal Is Not Even on Our Radar”

Sheila Dikshit speaks about her anarchist adversary, on Rahul Gandhi, son Sandeep Dikshit, the issue of women’s safety and more
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Sheila Dikshit (Photo: RAUL IRANI)

On a Monday afternoon, the official residence of Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit has a stream of visitors, the state’s Public Works Department minister Raj Kumar Chauhan among them. She walks into the drawing room a little after 4 pm to tell Open that she will only take a couple of minutes, and then steps out of the house to meet some people waiting to see her. Some offer her sweets and others have complaints, which she asks be submitted in writing. Those who are there for her aashirwaad make a beeline for her feet. She returns to find a portly businessman in a safari suit waiting. He wants an assurance from her that he will get a Congress ticket to contest the upcoming Delhi Assembly polls from his locality. Dikshit, who knows him by name, bluntly refuses to make a promise. He insists. She says Soniaji will take the final call. He walks out slowly as she settles down for an interview. Speaking to Open’s Mihir Srivastava, she talks about her 15 years as CM, Rahul Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal, her son Sandeep Dikshit, the issue of women’s safety and her life in general

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“I run Delhi on Goodwill for Delhi”

Q Congratulations on completing a third term in office. How would you rate this term compared to your previous two?

A We have done extremely historic work. When I say ‘historic’, please remember in this term 65 per cent of our budget has gone towards the social sector. I think this in itself is a unique thing. The Right to Education, Right to Information were there before, [and now] the Right to Food Security. We have made Delhi a kerosene-free state… 97-98 per cent. The Metro has moved forward.

Q The state’s regularisation of unauthorised colonies is seen by many as a populist measure.

A I was coming to that. The most historic is ownership rights given to resettlement colony householders; 1,600 colonies are to be regularised, 895 have already been done, and others are awaiting clearances because there are some conditions that they haven’t fulfilled. But we will do it.

Q My question was how you rate this term compared to the previous two terms. These five years have been eventful.

A The last two terms didn’t have the Commonwealth Games (CWG); we had them this term. The CWG gave Delhi a real overhaul… its beautification.

Q Anybody who visits Delhi after three years feels that the city has changed a lot. Rahul Gandhi, at a rally yesterday, complimented you for changing the face of Delhi.

A Yes.

Q At the same rally, you raised the issue of a unified command for Delhi.

A Yes.

Q There is criticism on the issue that I’d like you to respond to: the credit for anything good that happens to Delhi is given to Sheila Dikshit, but when it comes to taking responsibility for lapses, mismanagement or, say, CWG corruption or lack of safety for women, you blame a multiplicity of agencies and say your hands are tied.

A That’s true. I have to deal with the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC), Delhi Development Authority (DDA)… Ministry of Urban Development and Ministry of Home, Lieutenant Governor and the police of course.

Q So why don’t they get credit for changing the face of Delhi? How do you manage to run Delhi?

A Well, I think I run Delhi on goodwill for Delhi. The fact that everybody considers it their capital city, it’s everybody’s capital city. So we have had supportive people [who understand] Delhi’s requirements. But I think the process of decision-making takes so long. No other state has to go around [so many agencies if] I want to open a school, for example: we have to go to the DDA for land, this place and that place. It’s a very cumbersome process.

Q Correct me if I am wrong: you are a political heavyweight and the country’s most powerful Congress Chief Minister.

A Oh no! (laughs,).

Q You are one of the most powerful faces of the Congress party. You have a good rapport with the Gandhis. You have been Chief Minister of Delhi for 15 years. Why have you not been able to get a unified command for Delhi? You were talking about the issue before the last election as well.

A In 1998, it was for the first time that a Congress government came to power in Delhi. Before that, it was the BJP. The BJP is shouting itself hoarse: ‘This has not happened’, ‘Power should be cheap’, ‘Corruption is there’ and ‘Inefficient, corrupt government should be thrown out’. Their words ring hollow. We are able to achieve [what we do] because of our commitment as a party... It was a job given to us by the people. So we tried to perform to the best of our abilities. That’s all I can say. For 15 years, people tried to make corruption an issue, but for the last 15 years, I am happy to say, no minister or MLA [has faced] any case of corruption.

Q My question is specific. Given your political clout, why haven’t you been able to get a unified command for Delhi? Now that Rahul Gandhi has supported the idea, I’m sure it will be done at express pace. But why not in the past 15 years of your tenure? The CWG went haywire for this reason.

A The CWG did not go haywire—primarily because the Prime Minister directed that we all work as a team. And we did. And it was, from the point of view of the Games and the medals India won, outstanding and historic.

Q But from an administrative point of view, wasn’t a multiplicity of agencies dealing with the Games a problem? Delays in construction of infrastructure had put a question mark on the Games that led to the PM’s intervention.

A We managed to work with each other. The Cabinet Secretary at the time, Mr KM Chandrasekhar, we all worked together. It was team work. It was team work because it was not for a particular department, it was for the whole country. I think too much was at stake. So we worked as a team and the result was for everyone to see. Only a week before [the Games], everyone thought that it will be a washout. It was not. We worked as a team and there was success. That is why we keep saying that if there is a single line of command, then things will happen much faster in Delhi. Now I have to run to various [Union] ministries and come back home.

Q You had to run to Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar for onion prices that could cost you this election.

A Yes. We are not an agriculture producing state. We have to run for that too. Fortunately, we got it right today. Prices are going to fall. We made our officers run to Nashik. Today, they have gone to Alwar. So our dependence on other institutions, on other states, is much more.

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“Rape Capital an Unfair Medal”

Q Women’s security or the lack thereof in Delhi will be a big election issue.

A Yes. You see, as far as women’s security is concerned, the perception is that it is the weakness of the police. The real flak comes to the Delhi government. We acted fast to get fast-track courts going—that was done within a week. Both Mr [Sushil Kumar] Shinde, [Union Home Minister], and I saw the then Chief Justice [of the Delhi High Court] and told him that we have already moved in favour of special courts, please implement it. They did.

The other thing we did to give women a sense of security was the starting of the 1818 helpline of the Delhi Administration. That works 24 hours. Till today, we have been able to attend to around five lakh calls. This has given [women the assurance that] they are able to ring up [an authority] which will instantly either give them guidance or extend help. The police in this have been cooperative. The Commission for Women has been cooperative. The Social Welfare Department has been cooperative. I am being told that this is being replicated in some other states. So whatever was within our rights, capacity for delivery, we did very fast.

Q Do you think Delhi is safe for women now?

(Ponders the question)

Q Rapes may happen everywhere in the world, but women feel unsafe in this city. Do you feel Delhi is safe for women?

A Here the attention of the media is far more prompt and far greater than anywhere else. I am told the largest number of rapes take place in Madhya Pradesh. Nobody ever hears about them. And that other states are equally bad, but Delhi gets attention because your standards are very high. You expect perfection. So I won’t call Delhi a rape capital. I won’t call it that. It is an unfair medal to give.

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“I Don’t Know What Kejriwal Stands For”

Q This Delhi Assembly election is highly interesting because there is a new contender for power: Arvind Kejriwal. He is attacking you directly for corruption, misgovernance and a host of other things. Take, for example, his allegation that most civil projects don’t have a completion certificate; money is spent but no one has checked if the work got done or not.

A No. I want them to name a single project that has not been done. They may have been delayed. You may plan things and the work may not begin, but it is there in your plan.

Q So there is no diversion of resources?

A No, not at all. I can’t divert. Mr Kejriwal [of the Aam Aadmi Party], I must explain to him through you: if in your budget something is allotted for health, it cannot be used to buy buses. Or the buses can’t be moved to put up housing. This is a basic rule of budgeting. And suppose there is money lying unspent somewhere, it lapses.

Q It is not going into someone’s pockets?

A No, it can’t. You can’t draw one rupee of a cheque. A cheque for even a rupee from government coffers [cannot be drawn] without explaining why and where that one rupee is going.

Q Okay, take another issue—of tankers supplying water in Delhi, some 2,000 of them. They supply water to slums and also posh localities. They are there because there is no water in the taps. And the water mafia in operation gets patronage from the high and mighty in government.

A I want to ask you a question. Do you need water or don’t you? It is a basic requirement of living. You need air, you need water. It is a fact that water to Delhi comes from other places. The Yamuna comes from the Himalayas, it’s not generated within Delhi. The only generation of water in Delhi involves [drilling wells] to tap underground water. If you are not able to do that and lay pipelines for colonies that are built unauthorised, are you going to let them starve of water? There are unscrupulous people in every society, but we as a government have to at least provide drinking water. Ask [Kejriwal] to cite one case where people have died because of a shortage of water.

Q It is no achievement that this has not happened. But in the capital city of Delhi, there exist water mafias that have the patronage of people in power.

A I am not denying that there are water mafias. We try to crack down on them. There could be, just like there are sugar mafias. There are also housing mafias.

Q One mafia can’t be a justification for another. It shows that the government has failed. But now, Mrs Dikshit, let’s discuss Arvind Kejriwal in his capacity as a political opponent of yours. He has been challenging you to a debate. You have not taken up the offer. This could mean either of two things: you have no reply to his set of questions or just want to ignore him. Is there a possibility of a debate with him?

A No, I must know the debate. He said he has written a letter to me. I have never received a letter.

Q You have not received any letter from him?

A No.

Q What keeps you from accepting his offer of an open debate?

A Let me first know their policies at least.

Q He has come up with a manifesto. He has written a book called Swaraj that outlines his political philosophy. He has been accusing your government of corruption.

A Let’s see them. What is going to be the basis of this debate?

Q Are you saying that the debate at this point is premature?

A No, I am just saying ‘What is the basis of this debate?’

Q Are you worried about Arvind Kejriwal as a potent opponent in the upcoming polls?

A No. In a democratic system, you don’t worry [about opponents]. You just worry about what you can do or how you can earn the confidence of the people.

Q At an election rally, without naming Kejriwal, you called him a ‘barsaat ka keeda’.

A No. He is not even on our radar. We must first know what he stands for.

Q He is against corruption and misgovernance.

A He is iconoclastic. ‘This is wrong.’ ‘This should be broken.’ What is it that you are going to offer?

Q He has promised to enact a Jan Lokpal bill in Delhi within 15 days of coming to power if AAP wins.

A The Lokpal bill is not going to be made by him. The Lokpal bill is to come up in Parliament. We already have a Lokayukta in Delhi.

Q He plans to give more teeth to the Lokayukta.

A The Lokpal bill is in Parliament. It has to deal with it.

Q There is speculation that if the Congress wins Delhi, you won’t continue as CM for the whole term, there will be a generational shift.

A If people select [Kejriwal] and he gets an adequate number of seats, if he has more seats than any other party, he becomes Chief Minister.

Q No, I am not talking about Kejriwal, I am talking about you.

A Me? Oh! Let’s see.

Q It is a hypothetical question.

A Yes, it’s a hypothetical question.

Q Still, please give me an answer. Would you be Chief Minister of Delhi for another five years if your party wins the election?

A Let’s win the election first. Unlike any other party, we have a certain philosophy: first you win elections, send members to Parliament, and then you choose your leader.

Q Do you think Kejriwal has a good chance in these elections?

A I don’t know.

Q Do you see in him a significant opponent? This is your fourth election for the job of Delhi’s Chief Minister.

A No, I can’t evaluate that. Because I don’t know what the [Aam Aadmi] party stands for, what its political philosophy is, what it is going to do politically and administratively that is good for the city. All that has not come out yet.

Q So you are not in a position to make an evaluation of Kejriwal as a threat to the Congress in this election?

A No. Not at all. I don’t think anyone is, as of today.

Q But Kejriwal seems very clear about what he wants to do.

A That’s all right.

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“Chanakya teaches you what a king should do”

Q How are you keeping?  How is your health?

A Absolutely fine. I am working 14 -15 hours.

Q Does anything other than politics take your time?

A Oh! Music takes my time.

Q What do you like listening to?

A I listen to Indian and Western classical music, film songs, anything that is pleasant to the ears. I go out to watch films, I go to the theatre, [attend] concerts and dance performances. And I read a lot.

Q What is the last book you read?

A I am now reading Chanakya.

Q Chanakya at the fag end of your third term? A little late in the day, I would say.

A Yes (laughs). You see, Chanakya was an administrator. He doesn’t just give you a philosophy of politics, he teaches you what a king should do. [His work] is not only a treatise on political philosophy, but a treatise on administration. And I am also reading Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi.

Q Your saris are talked about among Delhi’s glitterati. They say you are one of our better dressed politicians. Do you get time to shop?

A Oh yes, oh yes! I go shopping. I never wear foreign-made saris. I have always worn handloom and khadi saris.

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“He is quite wise but impatient”

Q Will Sandeep Dikshit play a greater role in Delhi politics soon? Is his political career a consideration as you plan this election?

A I will tell you—in our family, my father-in-law used to say we function like republics; [each of us] takes our own decisions. And if required, the head of the family, at that time my father-in-law, [would] come together [to discuss an issue]. So it is the same philosophy for Sandeep. I don’t even know what he is doing or not doing. If he needs my guidance, it’s all there. If I need any information or guidance, I know I can rely on him. He has walked into a [political] career and he has to make it work.

Q How would you rate him as a politician?

A I think he is good. He is quite wise but he is impatient.

Q Which is good. He will get things done.

A He has too much energy.

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“Rahul Gandhi is not a brash politician”

Q What about Rahul Gandhi as a prime minister?

A Look, Rahul Gandhi is emerging as he is getting more and more experience as somebody who the party looks up to, as the leader of the future. I am sure with his experience, his background and his support within the party, he will become a great leader.

Q But he has no experience in government.

A Think of his father [Rajiv Gandhi], who was not interested in politics, he was a pilot, he became an outstanding person and today if India is in the reckoning as a country that is technically savvy, it’s because of his dream.

Q So do you think Rahul Gandhi is ready for the top job?

A I am sure he is.

Q He is openly critical of policies of the UPA headed by a Congress PM. Some see it as opportunistic politics. Some say he has all the authority but no responsibility or accountability. Don’t you think experience in government helps?

A No. I will tell you what: experience comes with time. You can’t prepone experience. The opportunity he will get will expose him [to governance], and that exposure will help him emerge.

Q As a member of the Congress’ highest decision-making body, the Congress Working Committee…

A I am not a member, I am a special invitee.

Q You are a permanent invitee, more vocal than other members. For all practical purposes, you are a member.

A (Laughs) Yes.

Q Would you want Rahul Gandhi declared the party’s Prime Ministerial candidate?

A Personally, I think so. But it is a decision his family has to take and I cannot comment on that. Personally, I would say ‘yes’.

Q Do you think Rahul Gandhi is a reluctant politician?

A No, I don’t think so. He is not a brash politician.

Q You know him well. Is he afraid of failure and does he avoid taking direct responsibility for that reason?

A As I said, he is not a brash politician. He is very correct about what he does.