Big test for little woman As Delhi prepares to go to the polls, Sheila Dikshit, the state's three-time chief minister, may be facing her toughest challenge yet, says Smitha Verma You can easily miss the diminutive figure at the centre of a ring of burly men in spotless white. The cordon gives way, and the petite woman in a pale blue Tussar silk sari and a beige cardigan emerges. Every man towers over her, but Sheila Dikshit walks tall. She waves the manifesto of the Congress at the crowds milling around her and smiles. It's a smile of confidence â€” seeking to underline that she is ready for the December 4 Delhi Assembly elections. For many in Delhi, Dikshit is the political face of the city. At 75, the three-time chief minister is also the face of the Delhi Congress. "She was like a breath of fresh air, bringing in much needed change after Delhi Congress stalwarts such as H.K.L. Bhagat, Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar," says social scientist Yogendra Yadav about her debut as chief minister in 1998. "She won the first elections because of anti-incumbency, the second because of good work and the third because the opposition was poor," adds Yadav, a member of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Dikshit is the only chief minister a generation of first-time voters can recall. The persona â€” handloom saris in paisley prints, graying hair tied up in a loose bun and a gentle smile â€” is a picture of quiet dignity. Her voice, soft and modulated (and heard often as her government reaches out to FM radio listeners on issues ranging from anti-cracker campaigns to examination woes), reinforces the image. "She is a dignified person. I like her etiquette. She is smart too," says her main opponent, Harsh Vardhan, the chief ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But elections aren't won on looks and good manners. "I will not be presumptuous. First let me win this election. Only then can I say what I plan to do in my next term," Sheila Dikshit says. By all accounts, it's going to be an exciting election. The Congress this time faces not just the BJP, whose chief ministerial candidate is known for his integrity, but also the new kid on the block, AAP, which hopes to clean the old system. "Several surveys on the elections put her at the bottom of the list," points out Sanjay Kumar, a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. The Congress manifesto hopes to undo that by wooing voters with a plethora of schemes. It promises to extend its popular ladli scheme (paying for the education of girl students in schools) to colleges. It plans to create double-decker flyovers, hawker zones and houses for the homeless. The party has to strive hard because the last few years haven't been easy for the chief minister. The 2010 Commonwealth Games (CWG) were attacked for financial bungling and shabby construction. Her government was criticised for over-spending by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India and indicted in the Shunglu Committee report. But Dikshit is seemingly unfazed. "That's because she has not done anything wrong," her political secretary, Pawan Khera, holds. On the contrary, he adds, it was Dikshit who took it upon herself to ensure that deadlines for construction were met. The city saw new roads, flyovers and spruced up stadiums before the Games. "On some days we were monitoring the work on the Barapullah flyover (which covered a stretch of drains, connecting east Delhi to the south), even as late as 3am," he says. "One night a contractor called to say work had stopped as it was raining and the labourers had no raingear. She went to the site with a few umbrellas in the middle of the night," Khera recounts. Dikshit, clearly, evokes loyalty as much as she generates criticism. Education and tourism minister Arvinder Singh Lovely holds that she doesn't "play" party politics. Minister for power and civil supplies Haroon Yusuf describes her as calm. "She doesn't get rattled by criticism. And she is flexible. You can convince her if an idea is good," Yusuf says. Last month, for instance, an American citizen who'd just arrived in Delhi called her at 11pm to discuss garbage disposal. She spent 15 minutes listening to him and then asked him to send across his solutions. The complainant may have forgotten all about it the next day, but Dikshit remembered. One of the first things she did was to check with her secretary if his suggestions had come in. Her critics, on the other hand, believe that she has been insensitive on several issues â€” making off-the-cuff remarks about women's safety (don't go out at night), migrants (Delhi is over-crowded because of migrants) and price rise (don't eat onions). "It's unfortunate that she makes such statements. But then it is also because she is an honest politician," Kumar of CSDS says. What cannot be denied is the fact that she has managed to emerge within the Congress as a leader to be reckoned with. "If leadership is the yardstick for a politician, she is a winner," Delhi-based political analyst Manisha Priyam says. Significantly, she out-manoeuvred a host of detractors in the party, mainly through the unwavering support of Sonia Gandhi. Dikshit's meteoric rise in Delhi is by now a tale well-told. Born into an apolitical family, Sheila Kapoor embraced politics after she married bureaucrat Vinod Dikshit, son of Indira Gandhi's home minister Uma Shankar Dikshit. "Vinod proposed to her on a DTC bus while they were studying in Delhi University," recalls her younger sister Rama Dhawan. Young Shiela, an alumnus of Miranda House, had grown up a free-spirited girl in Delhi, but quietly settled into matrimony. "She was the woman behind the man â€” the traditional homemaker who maintained a well kept home," a close family member recalls. Widowed at a young age after her husband died of a heart attack while travelling in a train, and left with two children (her son Sandeep represents the East Delhi Lok Sabha constituency and her daughter is a doctor), Dikshit started assisting her father-in-law. She also worked as the secretary of a garments export association in New Delhi. In 1984, Rajiv Gandhi asked her to fight an election from Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh. She did, and won. "It came as a big surprise to us," Dhawan says. She recalls the early days of campaigning when Dikshit would return home late in the evening, covered in dust, and then immediately start preparing for the next day. In 1986, she was appointed parliamentary affairs minister and later minister of state in the Prime Minister's Office. After Gandhi's death, Dikshit retreated from active politics, but kept her ties with Sonia Gandhi. "Sheila always shared a great personal equation with Rahul and Priyanka. She was their Sheila Aunty who used to visit them with chocolates whenever she came back from a holiday abroad. The relationship has continued till date," the family member adds. After Sonia Gandhi took over the party, Dikshit was given a ticket to contest the Lok Sabha polls from east Delhi. She lost, but in 1998 she was put in charge of the Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee and given six months to prepare for the Assembly polls. She won â€” and her steady climb to the top followed. She garnered popular support in her first two terms. The Metro came during her reign. She backed CNG-fuelled public transport, which cleaned the air over Delhi. She oversaw flyovers, reforms in the power sector, better government schools and social security schemes. The BJP is not convinced. "She has managed to build a good image by taking credit for everything that she never did," scoffs state leader Vijay Jolly. "The Delhi Metro was executed by its chief E. Sreedharan. It was our government that started the polio eradication programme," he says. The divide is stark â€” but the Delhi voter's view is still not clear. In less than a month, the country will know whether Dikshit will sink or swim. The lady herself says she is not going to get bogged down by electoral predictions. "There is plenty to do. I can't sit and lament that I haven't done this or that," she says. "I can't ever say that this is where I will put a full stop." Big test for little woman *********************************************** What are the chances that Dixit becames fourth time winner, given that the BJP has a weak CM aspirant and the AAP fighting its credibility given the expose by Media Sarkar.