NEW DELHI, India — In the US, politicians routinely wield their spouse as a potent political weapon, to define their character and help win elections. Think Hillary Clinton, Jackie Onassis, Todd Palin, and the like.
In India, the opposite is true. A spouse is viewed as a liability, an obligation that will distract from a politician’s duty to his country. Being committed to family — a sign of moral purpose in the West — is seen as a motive for corruption. India has a tradition of leaders who are either single or distant from their families. Mahatma Gandhi was married and had four children, but took a vow of celibacy when he was 38 and was seldom seen in public with his family.
Likewise, the frontrunner to be India’s next prime minister, Narendra Modi, has for decades posed as a single man, and has played that up as an asset. At a February rally in Himachal Pradesh, for example, he said, “I have no familial ties, who would I ever try to benefit through corruption?”
But just after India’s month-long election opened on April 7, the popular nationalist caused a stir by finally admitting that he has a wife — at least on paper. The couple were married when they were both children, but at 18 he refused to consummate the marriage. Instead, he became a political activist with a right-wing Hindu organisation called Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which requires some officials to remain celibate.
Celibacy, however, may also be a tricky matter for Modi. After rising in the BJP — a major opposition party that includes the RSS — and becoming the chief minister of Gujarat state, Modi faced occasional embarrassment over his relationship with Anandiben Patel, a minister in his government. She is often described as a “confidante” in the Indian media, and is expected to take over as chief minister if he becomes prime minister.
Anandiben’s husband, Mofatbhai Patel, abandoned the BJP after 35 years as an activist, in protest over his wife’s close relationship with Modi. The husband has made cryptic remarks widely interpreted as accusations that the two had an affair. "When she entered into politics, she severed all relations with the family for no fault of ours. Her behavior has become deformed and Narendra Modi is responsible for it," Mafatbhai said in 2007.
Modi’s political opponents have tried to score points over his personal history. So far, there has been little or no impact on his extraordinary popularity.
So why do Indians seem not to care? And why was it so important for Modi to claim that he was single in the first place?
For insights, GlobalPost talked to Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik, the Chief Belief Officer of retail giant the Future Group and a Culture Consultant to Reliance Industries, India’s second largest publicly traded company.
Pattanaik has written extensively on Indian leadership attitudes in his book Business Sutra. Global Post asked him to explain why Indians like their leaders to be celibate.
The interview has been edited and condensed by GlobalPost.
GlobalPost: In the middle of an election Narendra Modi essentially admitted that he’d been misleading the public about his marital status. Why has this had so little impact?
Devdutt Pattanaik: If this had happened in an American election, he would have been out. In India, fundamentally, nobody believes what is said or written.
“Show me evidence,” is a very Euro-American trait. In India even if a person goes to jail and a court says he’s a criminal, people will say, “No, I don’t think he is a criminal. The system has been against him. I believe in him.” And they will dismiss the court order as the whims and fancies of some political party. Nobody sees the court as the ultimate God. This Judeo-Christian structure of God, commandment, confession and hell does not apply to India or China, or in most of the world.
So in that light, everybody knew that he had a marriage, so his confession is not a great revelation. His believers believe in him and the disbelievers disbelieve in him.
In India morality and ethics are far more fluid and flexible. Which from a Western perspective looks hypocritical. Indians would say “Westerners are domesticated animals. They listen to the commands. They don’t think for themselves.”
What creates that aura of belief in a politician? What qualities will attract people to a leader?
The trend is that they have to distance themselves from family. So Rahul Gandhi [the Congress Party’s de facto candidate for prime minister and part of the Nehru-Gandhi family dynasty] is single, doesn’t talk about his private life, and he always wears white. White is associated with simplicity and purity. He is evoking [Mahatma] Gandhi.
It also represents widowhood. A widow will wear white. It also represents a lack of color, a lack of joie de vivre. He doesn’t have it and so he doesn’t show it. So people don’t enjoy him. He’s not enjoyable.
Modi is… not enjoyable but he is strong. He evokes strength by coming from a background of not having children, not being married. You see Sonia Gandhi [the Italian-born leader of the ruling Congress party] projecting that repeatedly, her stark, stern ascetic look. They will never be seen in any way enjoying fortune.
So that’s one element – the distancing from family. Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi are not the only ones who have done that.
All the more prominent politicians do not appear in public with their wives or children. Indira Gandhi [the former Congress prime minister] played the card of the widow. She was the single lady. We never saw her with her family. She was the mother goddess. The mother goddess never has a consort around her.
The founding fathers followed this idea of serve your nation, mother India. Gandhi kept his wife away, he was never photographed with her. Jawaharlal Nehru [India’s first prime minister] did not talk about marriage, although everyone knew he loved his women. Rajagopalachari, Sardar Patel — all of them rejected the family to be dedicated to mother India.
On the contrary, Pratibha Patel the former president kept her children around her and she was seen as dark and corrupt because of that. The whole idea is that the family exploits the position of people in power. You see children and spouses as a problem.
Where does this idea of the rejection of family come from?
My theory is that it springs from the Jesuit missionary concept. In the 19th century, the whole idea of the holy man who serves the country became very popular. All the major education institutes in India were built by Jesuit missionaries, so their ideas became very powerful. People who have given up their lives to serve the country. That has created a vocabulary which has been adopted by very many religious organisations.
Indians don’t have a religious framework. Religion is a Euro-American concept. It’s not there in India, at least not in that structure. The structured religion appeals to western sensibilities.
So this was not necessarily a Hindu tradition but something that was imposed by colonialism?
Traditionally in India, the ascetic must not be part of public life. Public life belongs to householders — people who are married with children. My view – and not everyone agrees with me – is that this obsession with the celibate ascetic who serves society is very Jesuit. Traditionally someone who is not married is part of a scholastic world, not part of day-to-day society. He is in the caves, he’s in the forests, he’s in a monastic order.
Clearly not everyone agrees with you – so what is the other side of it? If it had come from an Indian tradition, what might it be?
It couldn’t have come from an Indian tradition because Indian gods have to be married.
Most of the Hindu rituals are with a wife. You worship divinity in terms of couples. God is not seen in masculine terms. God is part of a couple: God and Goddess. One without the other does not exist. The whole idea is unity. The gods who are not married are considered to be very fierce. The single goddess with no man around her is feared. The single god, like Hanuman, is held in awe. He’s distant. He’s not central. In the center is Ram and Sita the perfect couple, husband and wife.
Traditionally, a king would not rule alone, he has a wife, he has children – that is a very critical part of Hindu tradition.
Hinduism as we know it today is a reaction to Buddhism. Buddha abandoned his wife to become a monk. Marriage and family are very central to Indian thoughts, so the idea of a leader who is not part of the household is curious.