Where celibacy is seen as prized virtue

Mr Narendra Modi (left) was married as a teenager by his parents but barely lived with his wife before leaving her to join a social organisation that places a premium on celibacy, while Mr Rahul Gandhi (right) has never admitted to having a woman in his life, nor has he been seen in public with one.

Isn't it odd that the two men who aspire to be India's next prime minister are both bachelors?

In another country, yes. In India, no, which is why few people have even commented on the fact that both Mr Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist, and Mr Rahul Gandhi, leader of the ruling Congress Party, are single.

The bearded Mr Modi, 63, was married as a teenager by his parents but barely lived with his wife before leaving her to join a social organisation that places a premium on celibacy. He is leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, widely tipped to win the general election that is under way.

As for Mr Gandhi, the 43-year-old scion of the Nehru- Gandhi dynasty, he has been photographed with a Latin American "girlfriend" but that was many years ago.

Since then, he has never admitted to having a woman - if indeed he has one - in his life and has certainly not been seen in public with one.

Many of the other top female politicians fighting in the election are also single: Ms Mamata Banerjee from West Bengal, Ms Mayawati from Uttar Pradesh and Ms Jayalalithaa Jayaram from Tamil Nadu. Moreover, they deliberately project themselves as being uninterested in marriage, the better to appear totally committed to the nation.

With the media coverage of the election campaign dissecting every aspect of politicians' lives, the fact that so many are celibate has exposed a peculiarly Indian way of looking at public figures.

In other countries, men and women who are married and have children tend to be regarded as more reassuring than those who are single. They represent family values and suggest emotional stability, whereas celibacy is a rarity, linked to joining a monastic order or a nunnery.

In India, it's the reverse. Married leaders are thought to be more corrupt and nepotistic, more likely to have a battalion of relatives - right down to third cousins and great aunts - bent on enriching themselves while the leader is in office.

Here, single leaders are often preferred as celibacy is a highly regarded virtue, as though these people are somehow more evolved and morally superior. Mr Modi is aware of this Indian predisposition and he has deliberately broadcast his single status, telling voters he has no reason to be corrupt because he has no family.

Mr Rahul Gandhi's Congress Party is also happy with his single status because it enables him to come across as someone who is devoted to the welfare of the nation to the exclusion of all else.

In Hindu tradition, moreover, celibacy is a feature of renunciation, and renunciation is a good thing. Leading an ascetic life after having renounced all worldly things is highly respected. Wandering gurus and priests with no belongings or family relationships tend to be revered.

And then, overlaying this ancient tradition is, of course, the example of Mahatma Gandhi and his famous experiments with celibacy.

He was so obsessed with practising celibacy that he used to test his sexual arousal (or rather purity of mind) by sleeping alongside two young women.

Its place in his life as a cardinal principle served to reinforce the Indian preference for celibate leaders rather than normal human beings with the normal sensual desires.

Taken further, it also explains why Hindus believe that widows should not re-marry.

If, for example, Mrs Sonia Gandhi, Congress Party chief, had remarried after her husband - former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi - was assassinated, her stock in the party would have fallen.

If she is respected by many Indians, it is not only because she belongs to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, but also because she never got herself another husband. Her mother-in-law, Mrs Indira Gandhi, also remained a widow.

Paradoxically, this respect for celibacy is a strong tradition in a society that is otherwise obsessed with marriage. Life revolves around finding the right girl or boy, and anyone who is not married by a certain age is looked at with pitying bewilderment as a freak or failure.

But in politics, being single is an advantage. Apart from winning votes, it certainly makes life easier for the leader. Countless are the politicians whose reputations - assuming they had one in the first place - have been tarnished by the greed, misconduct, or crimes of their offspring or siblings.

The family claims made on a leader are relentless. In his excellent book, India Calling, American journalist Anand Giridharadas writes that what is regarded as nepotism elsewhere - helping a nephew, say, get a job - is seen as a family duty.

The moral imperative for many Indians is not to follow some abstract principle of fairness but to fulfil their duty to help people close to them.

Either way, whether it is Mr Modi or Mr Rahul Gandhi who becomes India's next prime minister, there is no chance of an Indian First Lady, yet.


The writer, a former BBC journalist, is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi.

This article was published on April 28 in The Straits Times.Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.