‘There appears to be in the Indian polity a link between being Single and being of Prime Ministerial timbre. It is a trend, a preponderance — not a statistical verity,’ says Dr Shashi K Pande… A procession of images from India’s political firmament flits across: Jawaharlal Nehru, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Nitish Kumar, Naveen Patnaik, Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, Jayalalithaa — all of them single and strong-willed, dynamic individuals! Perhaps, the notable exceptions, L K Advani, Manmohan Singh and Rajiv Gandhi (the latter two more led than prone to lead), proverbially prove the point…
Single Man, the arresting title of Sankarshan Thakur’s recent book on Nitish Kumar, set off a trail in my psychiatric mind. Mr Thakur did not reveal his reasons for the title’s choice, but did say, in an that it has become a topic of ‘some charming speculation already’ — not surprising, for this is an engrossing book by a savvy observer of the Chanakya-saturated politics of Bihar. But it is not of direct concern to my cogitations here. Relevant, however, is the statement in the book that Nitish and his wife (now deceased) spent most of their lives living separately. And now, of course, Nitish Kumar leads the life of a widower.
The Single Man caption triggered ‘provocatively’ a chain of associations. They swelled, gathered momentum. There seemed to be a pattern. Narendra Modi, the new Prime Minister, is for all intent and purposes, Single. Of course, the Congress’s unheralded, unnamed, Prime Ministerial candidate, Rahul Gandhi, is eminently Single. But, then, the trail becomes wider. There appears to be in the Indian polity a link between being single (bachelor, separated, unmarried — spinster, widow, widower) and being of Prime Ministerial timbre, or at least of having such ambitions to some credible degree. It is a trend, a preponderance — not a statistical verity.
A procession of images from India’s political firmament flits across: Jawaharlal Nehru, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Nitish Kumar, Naveen Patnaik, Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, Jayalalithaa — all of them single and strong-willed, dynamic individuals! Perhaps, the notable exceptions, L K Advani, Manmohan Singh and Rajiv Gandhi (the latter two more led than prone to lead), proverbially prove the point. This Indian trend becomes all the more more glaring when one casts a comparative glance at the fellow-democracy: The USA.
Not one President, or even a President hopeful in recent US history, that I can think of is or was Single. Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush (Senior), Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy, Eisenhower and Truman, all married and well espoused. It would be unthinkable in American polity that a candidate would be on the hustings without his wife or spouse (a possible exception might be Sarah Palin).
The First Ladies in tow: Michelle, Laura, Hilary, Barbara, Nancy, Rosalynn, Betty, Pat, Lady Bird, Jackie, Mamie and Bess. I am deliberately reciting them here to conjure in the American public eye the joint image of the first couple. Altogether different from that of India. Now, the point is not that India has to copy what takes place in America, or vice versa. Each civilisation has its own ways. But the sharp divergence in the political practices of the two democracies is mystifying. It invites some thought. It also bristles with a striking contradiction. One would have thought that India, which has probably the world’s strongest intact family structure — certainly far, far stronger than that of the US — would choose at the helm of its affairs an individual with an intact family. And that its ‘collective unconscious’ would reject or in one way or another eliminate the Single Man or Woman. But no, the Indian voter on the contrary seems to go after such personages with gusto, all its own. There is, of course, nothing wrong whatsoever in being single: Only its over-representation in this group is worthy of note. It begs for an explanation.
Is the competitive arena of Indian politics at the highest level so intense, so exacting that it requires the exclusive immersion and sublimation of an individual’s libido (libido in the ‘psychic energy’ and not in the limited sexual sense)? And therefore, it self selects this Single unattached ilk. Or, does the time-honored Indian ideal of celibacy — real or feigned — add an extra halo to the aspirant? (Morarji Desai claimed that he had not slept with his wife or any woman since he was very young, quoted in Mark Tully’s No Full Stops In India.)
Lurking here, also, is a contradiction within a contradiction — we are, after all, a land of contradictions. While we seemingly pay no attention to the absence of spouses in the lives of our top leader, we overindulge politically perhaps for reasons of the same strong family tradition their scions, even worship their dynasties. The other face of this conundrum — that of the Indian electorate — also invites attention. Why is it that by and large it turns a blind eye to the intactness of the marital status of the candidate even though culturally a single adult male, if not a rarity, is generally infrequent and anomalous in India; and by temperament we Indians are not only an ‘argumentative’ but also a curious, inquisitive and gossipy lot? (Single women are not a rarity because of the unfortunate disapproval of the remarriage of the Hindu widow.)
An anecdote, therefore, was a bit of an eye opener for me. A few years ago, while riding a taxi in Mumbai and talking politics with the fellow UP-wallah driver — my perennial habit — I asked him, “What’s the news about Rahul’s marriage?” He straightened up and somewhat stiffly said to me in good Hindi: “Dekhiye, woh unki vyaktigat, niji baat hai, hum us mein nanhi jate hai (Look, Sir, that is his personal matter; I do not delve into it).”
More than just an isolated anecdote, this is revelatory — perhaps an across-the-board stance. Even in the heat of the general election, the personal lives of the prime candidates remain unknown, unprobed, unreported. No records of their income, health or personal philosophy seem to be much in demand. The religion of Rahul Gandhi, for example, is more than a personal matter, he being a public figure and even a potential Prime Minister. A world outlook comes with a religious tag even when as an adult one may formally shed it; the attitudes, the outlook are formed way back. Another example: There is no public knowledge of what Sonia Gandhi’s personal beliefs are, or what ideology, if any, she has. One would expect the electorate to ask for some of these or other relevant personal facts. But, no, like my taxi driver, the voter seems to believe that all this is the candidate’s personal, niji, matter — even as it might impact his destiny deeply. Thus, the Single Man and Woman single-mindedly stride toward the highest office of the land impersonally, crowd it almost anonymously, and strut across the political theatre fearlessly, unencumbered by any reportage relating to their personal lives.
(Dr Shashi K Pande was a full-time associate professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University in the USA and later professor and director of the Central Institute of Psychiatry, Ranchi in India.)