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 frontrunner Narendra Modi, 63, a white-bearded nationalist who likes to be seen as a modern-day “monk with a mission”, according to biographer Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay.
On the other is 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 about assuming his family inheritance as leader of the ruling Congress party.
Modi, the hawkish conservative candidate for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, tipped to oust the scandal-tainted Congress in the polls starting April 7, 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 say the marriage was never consummated and Modi went on to rise through the ranks of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) Hindu group which frowns on marriage for its senior cadres.
Modi, a strict vegetarian who says 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 ever try to benefit through corruption?” he told a rally, claiming 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 PM.
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 Modi and 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?”
Gandhi last year declared he did not want to wed, saying he feared he would “become status-quoist and want my children to take my 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 I find 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 Subhash Agrawal who runs the think-tank India Focus.
“In the Hindu tradition, being an ascetic and renunciation (of worldly things) has always been respected,” Agarwal said.
Also from a voter viewpoint, not having a family “means there is much more chance the politician is honest — he’s 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 — Mamata Banerjee from West Bengal and Jayalalithaa Jayaram from southern Tamil Nadu — have no acknowledged partners. A third female regional powerbroker, Mayawati, is also unmarried.
While both Modi and Gandhi have repeatedly expressed their support for the rights of women in male-dominated India, Modi has found himself under fire for his views on the other sex in the past.
In 2012, he branded the wife of a prominent Congress lawmaker, and successful businesswoman in her own right, his “50 crore (500-million rupee) girlfriend”.
A recent scandal focused on allegations Modi’s right-hand man used the state’s intelligence agencies to spy on a woman with whom the politician was supposedly infatuated.
Lately Modi has sought to broaden his appeal among women, insisting there can be “no compromise attitude” on discrimination against them and they must be free to choose “their career and marriage”.
The last 18 months have seen a nascent women’s rights movement take form in India after the shocking fatal gang-rape of a 23-year-old student on a moving bus in New Delhi in December 2012.
Feminists are keen to see the next government carry forward this momentum, but some are unsure of Modi’s credentials.
“The BJP has never been particularly known for its progressive attitudes toward women and there’s no reason to believe a Modi government would be good news for women,” feminist publisher Urvashi Butalia said.