In the caste-ridden Indian politics there are very few persons who have managed to carve a niche for themselves despite being in the 'weaker' group. Congress leader Sushil Kumar Shinde is one of them.
However, it is more an irony than an achievement that in the land of Jyotiba Phule and BR Ambedkar, Shinde is the first Dalit Chief Minister.
Shinde had been among the top contenders for the Maharashtra CM's post since the late 1980s. But every time he lost out because, as his supporters say, he does not belong to the dominant Maratha community, which constitutes more than 30 per cent of the state's population.
Born in a very poor family, Shinde had to study in a night school. He started as a ward boy in Wadia Hospital, Sholapur, then a peon in session court, before making it to the state CID as a sub inspector. Not one to be satisfied, he left the police on Sharad Pawar's call to join politics in 1971.
In 1974 he won an assembly by-poll from Karmala in Sholapur following which he was made a junior minister in the VP Naik government.
Shinde joined his mentor Sharad Pawar in 1978 when Pawar became the CM after splitting the then Congress (U). He remained with Pawar even when the government was dismissed in 1980, but could not stick with him for very long.
After returning to Congress he was appointed the finance minister in the Vasantrao Patil government, a job he held for the next nine years till 1989.
When Pawar himself rejoined the Congress in 1986, Shinde was among those who opposed the move. Barely five years later, Shinde and Deshmukh decided to revolt against Pawar, who had by then become chief minister, but were overtaken by events. In 1991, Rajiv Gandhi was killed, Pawar moved to the Centre as defence minister, and a year later, Shinde himself moved to Delhi as a Rajya Sabha member.
Shinde then began concentrating on building a career in New Delhi. Once his Rajya Sabha term expired, he won the 1998 and the 1999 Lok Sabha election. Notable about his victory in the Lok Sabha polls was that although he belongs to a Scheduled Caste community (Dhor), he contested from the general constituency- Sholapur, and won with big margins.
Over the years, he gained the trust of Congress president Sonia Gandhi. He acted as her campaign manager in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh, in 1999. Sonia won the seat with the biggest margin of the 1999 election.
In 2002, at her instance, he even contested the vice-presidential elections against National Democratic Alliance nominee Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, knowing fully well that it was a lost cause.
His 'sacrifice' didn't go waste, though. When the Congress decided to change its leadership in Maharashtra, Shinde emerged as the front runner. His proximity with the Congress president tilted the balance in his favour.
Further, his cordial relations with Bal Thackeray, Manohar Joshi, Pawar and Vilasrao Deshmukh as well made it sure that no one else had the backing of the Congress high command for the crucial job. He was sworn in as the Chief Minister of Maharashtra on 18th January 2003.
Recognised as a good administrator Shinde has very few enemies in politics. But his critics say that, as his base is the backward Sholapur region and he has little clout in the sugar-rich western Maharashtra, he would find it hard to tackle the challenges ahead of him. Moreover, the Maratha lobby would always be wary of him, making his task even more difficult.