A battle of bachelors in India

NEW DELHI - In marriage-obsessed India, where people are expected to wed young and produce progeny soon after, two single men are battling it out on the election trail for the prime minister's job.

On one side is fiery front runner Narendra Modi, 63, a white-bearded Hindu nationalist who likes to be seen as a modern-day "monk with a mission", according to biographer Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay.

On the other side is Mr Rahul Gandhi, 43, the scion of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty, who tops eligible bachelor lists and is known as the "reluctant prince" for his diffidence over assuming his family inheritance as leader of the ruling Congress party.

Incumbent Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has a wife, Madam Gursharan Kaur.

Mr Modi, the hawkish conservative candidate for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), tipped to oust the scandal-tainted Congress in the polls starting on Monday, reportedly walked away from a marriage arranged when he was a child.

He has never commented on the relationship, but the woman, 62-year-old retired school teacher Jashodaben, said recently that she didn't "feel bad" that she has never been acknowledged.

"I know he is doing so due to destiny," she told the Indian Express in February.

Reports said the marriage was never consummated and Mr Modi went on to rise through the ranks of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh Hindu group, which frowns on marriage for its senior cadres.

The strict vegetarian, who said he "actually enjoys loneliness", has made a virtue of his de facto single status, saying it will help him clean up India's rampant corruption.

"I've no familial ties. Who would I try to benefit through corruption?" he said at a rally, claiming that only those free of filial ties can end what opponents charge are years of corrupt rule by the Congress party.

And he wouldn't be the first single man as Indian premier.

Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, another BJP leader who served as premier from 1998 to 2004, said he never wed because he "did not get time".

Both Mr Modi and Mr Gandhi keep their private lives strictly under wraps - so much so that, according to a Google trends report, some of the most frequently searched questions are "Who is Modi's wife?" and "Who is Gandhi's girlfriend?"

Last year, Mr Gandhi declared he did not want to wed, saying he feared he would "become status quoist". He does not want his "children to take (his) place" and perpetuate his family's dominant political role.

But, in words that revived hopes of ambitious mothers across India last month, he said he would wed when he finds "the right girl". In the past, he has been linked to several foreign girlfriends.

But being single is no disadvantage in Indian politics, according to Mr Subhash Agrawal, who runs think-tank India Focus.

"In the Hindu tradition, being an ascetic and renunciation (of worldly things) have always been respected," Mr Agrawal said.

Also, from a voter viewpoint, not having a family "means there is much more chance the politician is honest - he has no family to enrich".

In the unlikely event that the next prime minister is chosen from one of India's smaller regional parties, there are high chances of a fellow, but female, singleton being selected.

Two of the most influential ones - Ms Mamata Banerjee from West Bengal and Ms Jayalalithaa Jayaram from southern Tamil Nadu - have no acknowledged partners. A third female regional powerbroker - Ms Mayawati, who goes by only one name - is also unmarried.