Amrit Dhillon is a writer based in New Delhi.
Just the other day, two bachelor politicians, Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi, were slugging it out in the Indian general election to become the next prime minister.
Now there is only one… bachelor, that is. Mr. Modi, 63, surprised Indians by writing “married” in the marital-status column in his election nomination form even though he has steadfastly refused to acknowledge the child bride his parents married him off to 45 years ago. In four earlier elections, he had left that column blank.
The sudden media glare on Mr. Modi’s wife, Jashodaben Chimanlal, has uncovered some odd currents in the way Indians think about marriage and public life, with the ghosts of Mahatma Gandhi’s obsession with celibacy returning to haunt the debate.
First, though, Narendra Modi’s wife. Very soon after their arranged marriage, Mr. Modi told his wife that he intended to pursue public life and saw no role for her in it. He urged Ms. Chimanlal to return to her parents’ home and resume her studies.
She has worked as a village schoolteacher all these years while Mr. Modi has gradually risen to become the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, tipped to win the election.
That much is straightforward. What is shocking are the comments made about her by Mr. Modi’s relatives after his acknowledgement of his married status. They show that, despite the nationwide soul searching that took place after the New Delhi gang rape over a year ago, the views of millions of Indians on what constitutes a ‘good woman’ remain the same as centuries ago.
Ms. Chimanlal has been depicted as an obedient, dutiful, submissive, undemanding and sacrificing woman. Mr. Modi’s relatives praised her for fasting and praying every day for Mr. Modi’s welfare, for possessing only five saris, for giving up rice to please the gods to bestow good fortune on Mr. Modi, for never remarrying, and for making no demands on him despite being deserted.
“That is a true Indian woman for you,” said Mr. Modi’s sister.
In large swathes of rural India, Mr. Modi’s wife is the epitome of the ideal woman: Namely, self-abnegating and devoted to her husband even though he abandoned her almost a half a century ago.
The other curious element in this affair is Mr. Modi’s enthusiasm for projecting his bachelor status and lack of a family. He has veered from one extreme (an arranged marriage in his teens) to the other (remaining single).
He belongs to a conservative Hindu organization called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which promotes celibacy for its senior leaders.
Celibacy is regarded as a virtue in India. In other countries, celibacy is followed only on joining a religious order. In India, this connection does not necessarily exist. Mr. Modi knows that being single goes down well with voters. They are convinced that someone who has no wife or family is likely to be less corrupt or nepotistic.
This belief could also partially explain the popularity of other single political leaders, too, such as Mayawati and Jayalalitha (they are known only by their first names) and Mamata Banerjee.
Even Sonia Gandhi, Congress Party chief and Rahul’s mother, is respected all the more because she has remained a widow after the assassination of her husband, former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. Had she remarried, her stock would have fallen.
Likewise her son Rahul, 43, the prime ministerial candidate of the Congress Party. Although he was photographed many years ago with one Veronique, rumoured to be his Colombian or Venezuelan girlfriend, the woman soon vanished and Mr. Gandhi has never been seen with another woman or romantically linked with one.
His party clearly prefers it that way. By remaining single, a leader can be seen more convincingly, it seems, to be devoting himself exclusively to the good of the nation. It helps win votes.
The fact that it is an odd life for a man in his prime to be leading is never discussed. In fact, Mr. Gandhi went so far as to say recently that he would rather not get married because having children and having ambitions for them would make him conservative and ‘status quo-ist.’
Last I heard, these were normal emotions. But many in India see things differently. The reason can be traced back to Mahatma Gandhi adopting celibacy as a cardinal principle of life. To test his self-control, he used to experiment by sleeping alongside two young women. Ever since, Indians have valued celibacy in their leaders rather than plumping for full-blooded human beings with normal sensual desires.
Witness the adulation lavished on Hindu priests and monks. Somehow, it is thought, these people are on a higher level than boring old married folk.
On a wider plane, the notion of celibacy is linked with another Indian ideal: sacrifice. Indians love the idea of people making sacrifices, although it should preferably be women doing it.
So, on the campaign trail, Rahul keeps projecting the ‘sacrifices’ made by earlier generations of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.
His mother Sonia goes on about the sacrifices made by her mother-in-law, prime minister Indira Gandhi.
Mr. Modi’s supporters say he has sacrificed a normal life by devoting himself the public good.
And, of course, his wife is being hailed for her sacrifice in not saying a word of complaint after being abandoned but just getting on with leading a hard, nondescript and probably lonely life. That is the perfect Indian woman.