BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi's recent disclosure that he is married has caused a political storm. But Modi is not alone in the Indian political theatre to have led an unconventional, and for all practical purposes, a single life.
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee, Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik, and BSP chief Mayawati are single. Former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee remained a bachelor, though he does have an adopted family. Modi's bitter political rival, Bihar CM Nitish Kumar, too had a difficult relationship with his wife.
What is it that deters some leaders from marrying?
Ajoy Bose, author of Behenji: A Political Biography of Mayawati, told HT, “India's top women leaders are women without men. It gives them a devi status, leaves them with no encumbrances, and they can dedicate their whole time to public life.”
Of Mayawati who was groomed by her mentor, Kanshi Ram, Bose says, “She has maintained that Kanshi Ram was always an elder brother, a father figure. What is important in that relationship was its political consequences.”
India’s restrictive sexual laws, and fear of public perception, may have deterred some leaders from coming out in the open about personal relationships – conventional and unconventional.
Nivedita Menon, political theorist at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said, “If you are in public life, it is difficult to sustain a traditional personal relationship. The issue is particularly acute for women, who challenge the established sexual division of labour.”
Men find this a difficult balancing act as well.
In his recent biography, Single Man: The Life and Times of Nitish Kumar of Bihar, author Sankarshan Thakur has written of the strained ties between the Bihar CM and his late wife, Manju Kumari Sinha.
Thakur told HT, “She was a teacher, he was an engineer. Her expectation may have been they would settle into a normal middle-class life. But Nitish was not prepared to give up public life.”
It didn’t help that the early part of Kumar’s political career was riddled with failures. He lost his first two elections, and Manju gave him R20,000 for the third one – on condition that he quit politics if he lost again, Thakur writes in the book. Kumar won but the marriage never recovered. Kumar, however, accompanied his wife in an air-ambulance from Patna to Delhi when she fell ill in 2007, and was with her when she passed away soon after.
This element of Indian political culture is in contrast to the US, where leaders are expected to flaunt their wives and children. Thakur explains, “In India, public lives are intensely public. Till security barriers came in, a politician's house was an open house. Constituents could walk in any time, and would expect to be hosted for days.”
It is this blurring of lines between the private family and public constituency that perhaps explains why many politicians prefer to remain single.