Narendra Modi, the newly installed prime minister of the world’s largest democracy, India, is the low-caste son of a tea-stall owner.
Joko Widodo, the president-elect of the third largest democracy, Indonesia, was a furniture maker only a decade ago.
And Marina Silva, the most popular candidate in a presidential race in the fourth largest democracy, Brazil, grew up in poverty in an Amazon jungle town. As a child, she tapped rubber trees and taught herself to read at age 16.
Taken together, the humble origins of these three leaders mark quite a political shift in the developing world’s largest democracies. From their childhoods living on the fringes of society, they are now challenging each country’s tradition of governance by a ruling elite.
Their ascendancy represents what Alexis de Tocqueville noted about America’s early decades as a democracy – its “equality of conditions.” In the context of freedom, each individual is afforded the dignity and opportunity to rise up in society through achievement rather than entitlement. It was, after all, during Tocqueville’s tour of the United States in the 1830s that a "man of the people,"Andrew Jackson, was the country’s first “populist” president. A similar phenomenon may now be under way in India, Indonesia, and Brazil.
Of the three leaders’ trajectories, Ms. Silva’s rise may be the most dramatic. If she wins an October election against incumbent President Dilma Rousseff, she will be Brazil’s first “poor, black” president, as she puts it. Her unadorned style reflects a rising demand among Brazilians for clean and efficient government. Protests erupted last year over corruption in spending on the World Cup. Brazil also has one of the world’s largest income disparities. As an “outsider,” Silva is seen as able to break up a corrupt establishment.
All three leaders know enough about the “little people” that they promise the most mundane things. In India, Mr. Modi pledged in a major speech to provide indoor toilets and bank accounts for the poor. At the same time, he also ran on a platform to help everyone regardless of creed, caste, or religion. His rise has inspired young people to ask him, “How can I become prime minister?”
In Indonesia, the Oct. 22 inauguration of Mr. Widodo (widely known as “Jokowi”) has sparked panic among the longtime ruling political families. His rise was made possible under recent measures allowing direct elections for mayors and regional governors. As mayor of Surakarta and later governor of Jakarta, he was a “man of the people,” broadening opportunities, curbing corruption, and keeping bureaucrats on their toes with regular inspections. Now the elite in the House of Representatives want to pass a law that would give only local parliaments the power to appoint local leaders.
Perhaps because of their roots, these leaders tend to govern more by merit than by political considerations. Coming from a background of humility, they may realize that the way up for all people is through practical, selfless measures. Tocqueville speaks of “self-interest well understood,” or the virtues of a democratic republic such as service and opportunity that are within the grasp of everyone. That aspect of democracy is worth noting, especially in giants like these three countries.