Sunday, 14 December 2008

Well done, Mrs D!

By Karan Thapar

If Sheila Dikshit is smiling contentedly as she sips her coffee and glances at the Sunday papers this morning, that would not only be justified but, more pertinently, an understated response to her phenomenal victory. 

In her place, others might have jumped up and down and shouted ‘whoopee!’. The credit for this third consecutive victory is undoubtedly hers. No doubt Sonia Gandhi and the Congress can claim a share but first, foremost and, indeed, most of all, it’s Sheila Dikshit’s.

If you don’t believe me start by looking at the odds she faced. To begin with she had already been in office for ten years and one would have expected a vote against her simply for that reason alone. It didn’t happen. 

But beyond that, she was the chief minister who presided over the Bus Rapid Transit corridor, urban sealing, Blueline murders and repeated terrorist attacks including the controversial and divisive Batla House encounter. 

If the BJP thought these constitute good reason for turfing her out, most of us would have agreed. Yet that’s not all. On top of all this there was also the frighteningly high rate of inflation and the dark shadow of the Mumbai terror attack. The Delhi electorate was more conscious of both than perhaps any other. Yet they deliberately and knowingly overlooked all of this. It’s not just incredible. It’s almost unbelievable. 

However, anti-incumbency is not the only element of conventional wisdom Sheila Dikshit has turned on its head. Age is the other. Next March she will be 71. Yet a city where more than 50 per cent are under half her age has given her a clear majority with 82 per cent more seats than the BJP. This time the BJP can’t believe it.

But how can I confidently assert the credit goes more — in fact far, far more — to Sheila Dikshit than either the Congress or Sonia Gandhi? Simple. Just compare the Vidhan Sabha results with those for the Municipal Corporation of Delhi elections 19 months ago. Then the BJP won 60 per cent of the seats, overturning an 80 per cent Congress majority in the outgoing house. Sonia Gandhi and the Congress party were at the front of that campaign. Sheila Dikshit was virtually absent. This time it was Mrs Dikshit who was the face of the party. Those of us who voted, voted for her.

Now the critical question is, what about Sheila Dikshit does the Delhi electorate find so reassuring? I would say the answer lies in three qualities. 

First, her image is appealing. The soft-spoken, grey-haired lady in printed silk sarees is attractive to all eyes. Second, her manner is caring. She is accessible, responsive and willing to accept mistakes. 

Third, Delhi has seen some — albeit limited — progress under her. The state of our roads, the spread of flyovers and the Metro, and the stabilisation of electricity, at least in winter, are the pluses. It may not amount to much, but for an electorate skeptical of politicians it felt like a lot.

But Mrs Dikshit was also helped by the opposition she faced. Clearly, V.K. Malhotra was not acceptable as the alternative. Whatever his political skills and acumen may be, he did not appeal to the electorate. And this point only underlines the fact that people want to know who will rule them. 

They may or may not like the choice on offer but a faceless, leaderless campaign is seen as undemocratic and, worse, it’s viewed as an attempt to deceive. 

However, there is also a caution one can sound. Third terms are tricky if not downright difficult to handle. What usually happens is that while a leader’s mandate has been renewed, the vision has also diminished and, often, the stamina is simultaneously exhausted. That’s precisely what happened to Margaret Thatcher 20 years ago and then, again, to Tony Blair 17 years later. Could the same fate befall Sheila Dikshit?

Guard against this Mrs D. But for today, keeping smiling. You’ve earned the right to a little self-satisfaction.

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