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Power of one

Sudha G Tilak | Updated on September 12, 2014

Single-minded: Narendra Modi, seen here with his mother Narmada Bai, is married but maintains the profile of an austere celibate. Photo: PTI

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This general election sees the highest number of singletons contesting for the main office

It’s epic. Being single is tinged with possibilities; hope; a future; unspoken promises; undelivered bounty; unswerving loyalty. And nowhere has it been as apparent as it is in Indian politics, where families have traditionally held sway. And the power of the single has been ennobled, bestowed with the magic of mythology. The lone crusader, single-minded in his or her devotion to a larger cause of community or the nation’s good, abjuring pleasure for purpose; family life for social good; personal gratification for common gain.

It’s a given that dynastic politics is held as the bane of Indian political parties. For everyone knows singles battle alone whilst families wage wars. Even as the list of large family trees involved in political games in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh or Tamil Nadu makes it to news pages, the country’s 16th general elections will witness more single men and women than ever before, contesting directly or indirectly for the prime minister’s office.

The two main contenders are the 60-plus Narendra Modi (despite the much-publicised affidavit about his marital status, he maintains the profile of an austere celibate) and the Congress’ Rahul Gandhi. The other aspirants Mayawati, J Jayalalithaa and Mamata Banerjee too are single, as is the lone successful chief minister of Odisha Naveen Patnaik.

However, these contenders are each unique in their singleness. Their individuality is more prominent than their singledom in the run-up to the election. Says Milan Vaishnav, an associate at the South Asia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “Modi is positioning himself as the outsider, anti-establishment candidate for PM. He has articulated a compelling contrast between himself and Rahul Gandhi. It is the ‘son of a chaiwallah’ versus the ‘scion of India’s most storied political family’.”

A suitable neta

Apart from Jayalalithaa, who was a professional actor, “How many of these individuals struggled with an ordinary job or profession?” asks the writer and journalist Ruchir Joshi. These singletons claim “they have ‘dedicated their lives to the nation’. We, the nation, should be very wary of those who have dedicated their lives to the nation with such ease.”

Shobhaa De writes, with the insight of someone who is an authority on single men, that Modi (despite his fasting wife) is “not the sort of guy you want to take home to mother. He’d probably scare the hell out of her”. Despite the party machinery working overtime to publicise the attractiveness of his 56-inch chest, De marks his allure low on the rubric of primitive masculine appeal. When it comes to Rahul, De somehow scores (now, now) the bachelor higher as the lonely, attractive man holding out against love and family life in a tragic bid to avert dynastic politics, which he wants to end, despite Kareena Kapoor and other important ladies of the land openly declaring RaGa as charming.

The question that goes begging is whether the ‘bachelor as leader’ will put an end to dynastic politics in India. Political parties that are run by many members of one or two families, and where outsiders find themselves sidelined, are almost the norm in many States across India. However, it seems almost naïve to think single politicians can end dynastic politics. The BJP, once led by the “Bhishmacharya” AB Vajpayee as prime minister, finds his then prominent “foster family” missing and seems to be led by another singleton, Modi.

Family matters

“Each party accuses the others of dynastic politics, yet has no shame or hesitation in bringing in their own leaders’ sons and daughters almost as if it’s a matter of course that the scion would take over the family firm or Jaaydaad,” says Joshi.

Vaishnav points out, “Dynasticism is something most parties engage in across the political spectrum,” given 29 per cent of the current MPs have an immediate family connection in politics; up from 20 per cent in 2004. “Given the barriers to entry in modern Indian politics, dynastic politics is not going to disappear overnight based on who the PM is,” he says.

Irrespective of whether these political leaders are single men or women, “crony capitalism continues to rule our political parties,” warns Vipul Mudgal, head, Publics and Policies Programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.

Sons, daughters, nephews, nieces and cousins assume prominent positions in almost all major national and regional political parties. At the national level, it is most apparent in the Congress, where Rahul Gandhi’s mother is president and sister, Priyanka, has considerable de facto clout as she has been spotted visiting party headquarters and assisting her mother and brother during poll campaigns.

Vaishnav says that while it is refreshing to see so many political leaders running parties who are not dynastic — Mamata, Mayawati, Jayalalithaa and Nitish Kumar — these parties have their own pathologies. They are largely built around the personality of one charismatic leader; they are under-institutionalised; and they function in a fairly top-down manner. “The lack of intra-party democracy is worrying, ” says Vaishnav.

Hands-off media

Unlike the US presidential elections or in the UK, where leaders and their families come under the media scanner and images are splashed as part of quality family time and holidays, in India the politician’s family is a given. In fact, it is often viewed with suspicion of nepotism and privileges. “In India, brahmacharya (real or feigned) and singlehood are regarded in a matter-of-fact way which it isn’t in the West, especially in America, which imposes a very conservative ‘Christian family’ grid on all political candidates,” says Joshi. For Indians, the leader has been comforting as a lonesome figure even in the past. A married political leader such as Mahatma Gandhi resembled an ascetic, like sages of yore, whose family belonged to the large community that he wished to serve and not as a unit he was compelled to gratify with power’s accruements and spoils.

Additionally, Indian leaders have not had much trouble with the paparazzi or TV/video leaks unlike their western counterparts who have to contend with the media’s daunting scrutiny of their personal lives.

Family’s will

As the bachelors go to seek votes, it seems too early to say whether their win will lead to the end of the political family saga. Mudgal says, “The family is hard to destroy in our country.” He points to the family-owned businesses, offspring encouraged to take up the family profession, lawyers gifting their practise to children and doctors their clinics. “Indian society networks through families.” Professional networking, too, falls under the umbrella of the family. Families thus can’t be stopped from entering politics. The well-known exception is Arvind Kejriwal, whose children are too young to take up their father’s cause.

Thus the bachelors may win the elections, but it’s the families that will enjoy the spoils.

(Sudha G Tilak is a Delhi-based journalist)

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Published on April 18, 2014
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