Argument

All the Single (Indian Politicians)

All the Single (Indian Politicians)

To govern India is to oversee a country bubbling over with 1.2 billion people, a triumph of procreation. Ironically, then, one of the safest bets about India’s upcoming general election is this: The next prime minister to move into the official residence on 7 Race Course Road will do so unencumbered by a family of his or her own.

The election, beginning in phases on April 7 and lasting five weeks, has become a race of singletons. Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate and the front-runner, left his wife, Jashodaben, in the late 1960s, the better to build his political career; he has not spoken to her since. Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the incumbent Congress party, is his party’s presumptive choice for prime minister; he’s 43 years old, unmarried, and, as far as common knowledge goes, unattached. The calculus of coalitions may also yield the leaders of smaller, state-level parties as prime minister — J. Jayalalithaa of Tamil Nadu, say, or Naveen Patnaik of Odisha, neither of whom has ever been married.

In the craft of image-making in U.S. politics, the family looms large. Only one American bachelor has ever been elected president — James Buchanan, who took office in 1857 — and campaigns today regularly display candidates onstage with their families, arms twined behind backs and faces aglow with smiles. In a 2007 Gallup survey, three out of four Americans polled said that a politician’s position on "family values" would have an important influence on their votes. The United States demands to know its aspiring first families intimately and to see them as tight, happy units.

The Indian voter seems to worry much less about the domestic lives of India’s politicians or at least is more comfortable electing those who depart from the nuclear family. This is true both for national and regional figures. Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati, women who head powerful regional parties and have been chief ministers of the important states of West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, respectively, are unmarried. M. Karunanidhi, a giant of Tamil Nadu politics who served five times as the state’s chief minister, has two wives, a fact he has never tried to mask. (Among Hindus, Indian law punishes polygamy only if one of the wives files a complaint.) Gegong Apang and Dorjee Khandu, former chief ministers of the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, wedded several women apiece without divorcing any of them. When questioned by opposition politicians after his second marriage, Apang pointed out, by way of justification, "My father had six wives."

It isn’t easy to pin down the reason for this quirk of Indian political culture. One might look first — as one always tends to — at Mahatma Gandhi, and his peculiar acts of self-abnegation, such as disregarding his wife and four sons to devote his energies to politics. Gandhi made impractical demands of his sons, demanding that they be celibate and as committed to the Indian freedom struggle as he was. When his relationship with his eldest son, Harilal, soured, Gandhi wrote in 1925 in his magazine, Young India: "Men may be good, not necessarily their children."

Such is Gandhi’s hold over the Indian imagination that he may have set a model of service before self. His protégé Jawaharlal Nehru, widowed in 1936, never remarried — he served from 1947 to 1964 as independent India’s first prime minister. Singlehood can even become an article of pride for politicians. "Chamari hoon, kunwari hoon, tumhari hoon," Mayawati has often proclaimed in her election rallies. "I’m of low caste, I’m unmarried, and I’m yours." The latter two-thirds of this formulation is, of course, not something Karunanidhi or Apang could incorporate into their speeches.

An alternative theory might discern a streak of live-and-let-live liberalism — surprising for a country whose judiciary has freshly judged gay sex to be illegal. The electorate appears to have tacitly decided that the configuration of a politician’s family is a personal matter that has little bearing on his or her career. In New Delhi, rumors with the ring of truth swirl about the sexual preferences or infidelities of married ministers, but journalists rarely attempt to sharpen this gossip into hard news. The politician’s family, it would seem, is off limits to the public, to be kept well away from the spotlight — at least until the offspring can run for election and turn the family into a dynasty, as happens alarmingly often in Indian politics.

Candidates largely abstain from jabs at their rivals’ private lives, possibly unwilling to cast the first stone. Even for reporters to pose such questions can feel unseemly. In the handful of interviews that he has granted over the past couple of years, Modi has never been asked about the wife he left behind. When the Press Trust of India, a wire agency, asked Rahul Gandhi about his singlehood in March, it was an unusual enough occurrence to make news. Gandhi replied, "Right now I am engaged in fighting the elections. Unfortunately, I have not been focused on private life."

"Is it two years from now, one year from now?" his interrogator pressed.

"When I find the right girl," Gandhi responded.

"That means you have not found the right girl?" the reporter asked.

"When I find the right girl," Gandhi said again, icily, "I will get married."

Alongside Gandhi and Modi in the troika of politicians commanding national stature, though, is Arvind Kejriwal: a crusading upstart and a quintessential family man. Kejriwal and his wife, Sunita, met when they were training to join the Indian Revenue Service; they have two children in school; and Kejriwal’s parents live with them in a small apartment on the outskirts of Delhi. This is a family unit seemingly begging for photo-ops and campaign advertisements. But even here, an iron curtain keeps Kejriwal’s family out of our view; when I interviewed him last year and asked whether I might speak to his wife, he demurred, saying he’d rather I simply talked politics with him. He was keen, as most other Indian leaders are, to separate his life and his work, to be considered in no dimension at all except the political.