Chief Minister of Delhi Sheila Dikshit is the mascot of the Congress Party's development plank. Her squeaky-clean image has helped and her work speaks for itself. "I do not have to say it but pollution control, flyovers, schools, hospitals and the transport system — everything says that people seek improvement. We have delivered."
Her track record in dealing with the capital's problems has gained her admirers. From cleaning up Delhi's air and switching to compressed natural gas (CNG) to being perceived as a force behind the Delhi Metro and introducing the Bhagidari Scheme to ensure citizens' participation in governance, she has done well for herself.
Dubbed by Delhiites as Aunty No 1, Dikshit cannot stop smiling. Still basking in the glory of the thunderous applause she received at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games 2010, she says: "I felt a sense of relief and joy when the games got off to a rocking start and ended with the same panache."
One could sense that Dikshit had her fingers crossed before the games. Asked then if she would be taking a holiday after the event, the three-time chief minister of Delhi had cheekily remarked: "Yes, I certainly will. I will go into a cave!"
But she didn't have to. Her grandmotherly smile, humility and honesty helped Dikshit sail through the rough and tumble ways the city readied and showcased itself in the nick of time.
All these years, in the thick and thin of politics, she focused on development. Coupled with good governance, she has been able to rule efficiently, despite having to face not just the opposition but also detractors within her party.
"For 12 years now, Delhi and I share a mutual admiration. Together, we have seen difficult times and fulfilled aspirations. My commitment to the city has translated into what it is today," she says.
She is convinced that caste and parochial or communal politics have become passé, especially with the youth, and such factors do not count at all.
"The youth of today has realised, at least in Delhi, that a stable government committed to good governance will take the country forward.
"The government is not meant to represent a community, a caste or a region. The youth look for development, because that means economic prosperity and job opportunities for them," she said.
She understands the pulse of Delhiites. Gauging that the middle class did not mind paying a little more for better services, she increased the fares of the buses in the city. When opposition leaders picked up the issue, she silenced them by saying that if people wanted to travel in swanky low-floor buses, they were supposed to pay more. Her logic has been that a city should be ready to pay for better facilities.
When facing difficulties, she goes into the nitty-gritty of things and impacts the lives of people and relates to them as no other politician has been able to.
Aware of the constraints she has to work within, Dikshit is always able to balance her act right.
She is straightforward about her 45-year-old son, Sandeep, a Congress candidate. "He must have had that initial advantage to fight and win the Lok Sabha elections from east Delhi but eventually, you have to prove yourself. He has to learn to be patient and be ready to meet the highs and lows."
Commenting on Delhi having been dubbed a crime-prone city, with people, especially women, feeling unsafe, the chief minister clarified: "The situation is alarming and we are doing our bit by providing self-defence training to women. And yes, we do need better law and order. But then certain things are beyond me. The police is not under me."
She also felt that Delhi required fewer agencies handling the works. "I would like to see much better planning of the city, which is with the Delhi Development Authority. Dealing with multiple authorities, including Municipal Corporation of Delhi, New Delhi Municipal Council, Public Works Department, Cantonment Board, Federal Ministry of Urban Development and Federal Ministry of Home Affairs, is not easy. Every time we pick up a job to do, we have to go through all these agencies and satisfy their requirements, which is very time-consuming."
Born in Kapurthala, Punjab, on March 31, 1938, to Swarnlata and Srikrishna Kapoor, an army officer, she was educated at the Convent of Jesus and Mary and Miranda House. She earned her masters in History at Delhi University in 1959.
For a year Dikshit worked as a teacher in Nathaniel Nursery School in Delhi and then married Vinod Dikshit, an Indian Administrative officer, in 1961, who died in 1987. Married into the family of veteran freedom fighter and Congress leader Uma Shankar Dikshit, her association with politics started in 1969, when the Congress party split.
Her foray into electoral politics came in 1984, when she won the Lok Sabha seat from Kannauj, Uttar Pradesh. She was appointed federal minister of state for parliamentary affairs and minister of state in the Prime Minister's Office in 1986, during Rajiv Gandhi's tenure.
After winning the prestigious Gole Market seat in 1998 and 2003, she was elevated to the post of chief minister of Delhi. Her subsequent win in the Assembly elections in 2008 was a hat-trick.
Considering that in the 1990s, Delhi was seen as a dying city with declining standards, the turnaround has been exemplary.
"From that state of despondency, it has become a city of hope and cheer. The change is felt and seen everywhere. Although some of it happened at a fast pace, some took time," she said.
Dikshit believed that Delhiites could keep the city clean if they wanted to. "The Metro is an example. Apart from providing good transportation, the Metro has brought about a change in cleanliness norms. I hope this culture spreads," she said.
For green lessons, she had recently visited Japan. Environment is one of the issues closest to the chief minister's heart. "We have been leading a rigorous campaign of greening up Delhi and imploring people to plant and protect trees, adopt and nurture them, and gift them."
She admitted that the campaign against plastic had not been very successful, although in certain up-market areas one can find only recycled paper bags. "We have changed perceptions in many ways but mindsets too need to change," Dikshit said.
Her next target is housing for the marginalised. "Delhi has the growth of unauthorised colonies and slums, which should be removed. People must live a life of dignity. There are achievements but lots to catch up on as well," she said.
Nilima Pathak is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi.