A CM who performs Shailaja Chandra What makes Sheila Dikshit different from others? For starters, she doesn’t allow bureaucrats to spin circles around her. Labyrinthine explanations cut no ice, making it impossible for babus to suck her into the vortex of red tape that they whisk up in a jiffy After Ms Sheila Dikshit’s recent victory, countless people asked me what it was like to work with her. How does her style differ from others? What was so special about her? Is she efficient? How does she manage the bureaucracy? A few nuggets might help create pictures, albeit completely unrelated to the third-time coronation of somebody labelled as ‘Aunty No 1’. When I first took over as Delhi Chief Secretary in 2002, Ms Dikshit had already been Chief Minister for four years. By then she had seen two Chief Secretaries — both men. I was acutely aware of the universal belief that two women can never get along and whatever might happen, was eager to explode that myth. Unexpectedly, her first instruction was to ask me to run the Government “like a thrifty housewife”. After decades of working with political stalwarts and managing mega projects and programmes I felt punctured like a flat tyre. Over time I realised that for Ms Sheila thrift did not mean frugality. A Satish Gujral painting or exotic cuisines were easily indulged in the name of State elegance. But electricity conservation, recycled waste, running crusades against plastic bags, a partiality for ethnic weaves and an equal loathing for synthetic kitsch were her personal passions — something one has never witnessed in any Minister of Energy, Environment or Textiles, despite all the tall talk about preserving the planet. That made Ms Sheila a real person with feelings and taste-not just a marionette playing a part, mouthing predictable clichés. Ms Sheila’s second priority after I joined was to locate a professional housekeeper. She mentioned this to me thrice in my first two days and again I had misgivings about abandoning the regatta of Bharat Sarkar. But the IAS is accustomed to working with worse idiosyncrasies so I began the hunt. Luckily, I discovered a battleship, somewhat unsuitably attired in pink chiffon and pearls, but reputed to have given a facelift to UPSC’s dingy interiors. Without much ado I appointed her and sent her packing to take orders from the Chief Minister directly. Ms Dikshit did not think it infra dig to deal with housekeeping morning, afternoon and evening. Not until the brass planters in the Y-shaped Player’s building began to gleam, fresh flowers appeared in hallways, bundles of Government files disappeared from windowsills and brooms, swabs and phenyl bottles found unseen shelter, did the gasping housekeeper get time to breathe. The touch of class shone everywhere, with visiting dignitaries bowled over after each visit. Ms Dikshit’s ability to put humour and pleasantness above business is legendary.
Most Ministers are too preoccupied with their own importance to spare anything but a frozen smile. Most bureaucrats only bother about people worth bothering about, with little space for random hilarity. The Chief Minister’s morning telephone calls to me transmitted complaints but not until she had wished me a cheery good morning, and cracked a joke did she embark upon the litany of woes she had personally heard. By then she had already instructed the heads of the concerned organisations directly. But in madam’s management handbook supervision was the Chief Secretary’s business, not hers. The astonishing thing was that so many people — mostly very ordinary public — actually managed to get through to her. The pesky private secretaries adept at blocking telephone calls (ubiquitous at all levels of bureaucracy and a contagious disease with Ministers,) did not exist in Sheiladom. Her backstage management was superb, fortified by the watchful eyes of a powerful sister-daughter and in-law brigade and a hand-picked set of unpretentious back-room players. Meetings, functions, catastrophes may come and go but messages were always relayed. As she hurtled between the length and breadth of the city in her modest Ambassador, the call back would come, brief as the exchange might last. During interdepartmental conclaves she deposited the monkey squarely back on the shoulders of bureaucrats, particularly the perpetrators of blame games. Labyrinthine explanations cut no ice with her, making it impossible to suck her into the vortex of red tape that all bureaucrats whisk up in a jiffy. It made no difference to her opinion of an officer whether she saw his face once a week, once a month or never. Erudite economic theories did not hold her attention. Slow, inefficient and even lazy officers were given second and third chances but those who deliberately complicated things were replaced, even if the move looked like a reward.
They were never rehabilitated thereafter, (although the smiles and hugs continued as before.) The Secretariat lobby, the driveway of her small house (then) at Mathura Road, a staircase, a lift, alighting from the car, saying goodbye in the porch were all places where she listened to officers at all levels and gave the nod they awaited. No single officer, leave alone a coterie could prevent an officer from directly interacting with the Chief Minister. Hierarchy levels, IAS and non-IAS did not matter to her if work was getting done. These lessons went beyond the ken of her political foes, including some astute bosses that longed to clip her wings. Like her, hate her, in the end Ms Sheila Dikshit has had her day.