“I’ve learnt to never take things for granted,” says Gaurav Sharma. “Our family faced many difficulties after we moved from Himachal Pradesh to New Zealand. There were ups and downs…”
Sharma is speaking on the phone from New Zealand, where it’s almost midnight, in an easy mix of Hindi and English.
The 33-year-old general practitioner recently became New Zealand’s first directly elected Indian-origin lawmaker. “It is an incredible privilege. I feel very lucky to be able to represent others,” he says.
It’s clear that for Sharma, one of the heroes in his life is his father Girdhar Sharma. “He gave up his job as an engineer with the Himachal Pradesh electricity board and came to New Zealand with just $200, slept on park benches, got his meals from food charities,” he says.
Then he began buying and fixing used vacuum cleaners and reselling them. “He didn’t even have a car, so he went around with the vacuum cleaners on a wooden trolley — a total case of good old jugaad.”
That was in 1994. In a few years, the family settled down. In 2000, while still in school, and taking a cue from his mother Purnima Sharma, Gaurav began working part-time as a caregiver at homes for senior citizens. This sparked an interest in healthcare and he enrolled in medical school.
It also led to his first brush with politics, when he defeated five other candidates to win the student election at the University of Auckland Medical School.
Travelling and working on policy issues with healthcare consultancies in Spain, Switzerland, Mongolia and the Philippines led to Sharma’s interest in making what he calls “system-wide changes”.
“To do this, I needed to know about how to obtain funding, and that’s why I pursued a Master’s in business administration from George Washington University in the US as a Fulbright scholar,” he says.
Encouraged by several Labour Party leaders such as Phil Goff, now mayor of Auckland, and former health minister David Cunliffe, Sharma began taking a greater interest in politics , joining the party as a volunteer in 2014.
As a former board member of the Auckland Refugee Council, Sharma advocated for the doubling of New Zealand’s refugee quotas years before it became Labour Party policy.
Asked if his election, from the Hamilton West constituency, reflects greater political mobilisation or awareness within New Zealand’s Indian diaspora of about 170,000, Sharma says: “There are very few Indian voters in my constituency. They probably don’t even make up 1.5% of the electorate. But yes, Indian-origin people are taking a greater interest in politics. After all, wherever we go, we’re always interested in cricket, movies and politics.”
The MP brushes off the racist overtones in some reactions to his electoral victory. “There will always be some people who are unhappy, but I’ve also had a lot of support,” he says. “There is racism everywhere. It’s important to highlight that we don’t want to get bullied and suffer.”
Back in Sharma’s hometown of Hareta in Hamirpur district, Himachal Pradesh, relatives are ecstatic about his win. “He has brought fame to the village, the state and India,” says uncle Lalit Sharma. “Gaurav was brilliant like his father from an early age and now he will show his brilliance in Parliament.”
Sharma retains a strong connection with Himachal Pradesh, saying he still speaks Pahari with school friends and misses the dham or traditional vegetarian meals prepared on festive occasions. “During my last trip to Mumbai, I ate 24 gol gappas, but that was half my record of 52 on another occasion,” he says.
(With input from Gaurav Bisht)