Samajwadi Party leader Naresh Agarwal’s controversial comment on Narendra Modi, that a person who once sold tea cannot be India’s prime minister, has turned the spotlight on leaders who have risen from similarly humble backgrounds.
Agarwal’s attack on the BJP’s PM candidate was yet another example of the declining standards in public discourse practised by the political class in a highly charged election year. But it has, even if unintentionally, reflected the brighter side of the country’s democracy.
Across parties, the journeys of many prominent leaders at the Centre and in various states have been nothing short of remarkable. Not only have they risen from the ranks but they have defied unimaginable odds to join politics and occupy high positions.
If Modi sold tea in his childhood, Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot doubled up as a magician while also attending college, and former Karnataka chief minister BS Yeddyurappa’s first job was that of a clerk in the state welfare department.
Similarly, Union home minister Sushilkumar Shinde started his career as a peon in Solapur court and was later recruited as sub-inspector in police force while a young AK Antony, who is defence minister today, sold insurance for LIC (Life Insurance Corporation) to pay his student fees.
Veteran freedom fighter and former Kerala CM VS Achuthanandan could not complete school due to poverty and was a farm worker at the age of 12.
Then there was the late Bhajan Lal, a school dropout who sold bedsheets and shawls on a bicycle on the streets of Hisar before going on to become the chief minister of Haryana.
These rags-to-riches stories reflect the beauty of Indian democracy, according to Professor CP Bhambri, veteran political analyst.
“Those who comment about the backgrounds of individuals obviously don’t understand the ABC of Indian democracy. It is not important where you come from, what’s crucial is what kind of politics you practice,” he said.
He reminded Agarwal that the SP’s leader, Mulayam Singh Yadav, too grew up the hard way and was a wrestler in his student days.
Social scientist Dr Dipankar Gupta was of the view that leaders from varied backgrounds doing well in politics pointed to a healthy democracy. “People from different classes reaching the top in politics with the support of the people needs to be celebrated. It is not an isolated Indian phenomenon, it happens in advanced democracies too.”