The most powerful singles club in the country just got a little less crowded. Narendra Modi, has declared a long-denied wife mid-bid to Prime Ministership of India. But till just the other day, singlehood in Indian politics carried formidable heft. Modi’s chief adversary and undeclared pretender to the top office, Rahul Gandhi, has often teased a public and formal pledge not to marry. With one entry on his nomination form in Vadodara — “Jashodaben” — Modi announced himself as a living paradox: married in a marriage he neither committed himself to nor consummated. It was a bal-vivaha, child marriage, Modi was 17, Jashodaben two years younger. Even in that day, such coupling would not have had the sanction of law. But on paper that now carries the weight of his signature, Modi is single no more. The singles club of our public people may just have lost its best known member.
It remains, even so, a mighty gathering possessed of influence across and up and down the nation.
When Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abduallah’s announcement in September 2011 that he was separated from wife Payal, he rendered himself the country’s eighth chief minister without a formally designated current partner.
Already in when Omar finally announced himself at the club door — squishing speculation and kicking grapevine en route — were J. Jayalalithaa of Tamil Nadu, Naveen Patnaik of Orissa, Nitish Kumar of Bihar, Mayawati of Uttar Pradesh, Shiela Dikshit of Delhi and Mamata Bannerji of Bengal. Narendra Modi of Gujarat, still there at the time, has just stepped out. But Vasundhara Raje of Rajasthan has just returned, having recently grabbed the state back from the Congress.
Single people still rule over close to half of India’s population — 49.47 percent of Indians according to last count. And in a nation so moored to family and family values and in a polity so overrun by dynasties, they also constitute a charming collateral trend. But does that alone make a case for speculation on similarities in public behaviour and governance patterns? Yes and no.
Single chief ministers can all, for instance, be said to have more time available to devote to affairs of state by the sheer fact of not having to bother with family at the back of the office. Some also argue that a single person is less liable to resort to nepotism or other forms of corruption. And it is often suggested that they are less liable to be driven by pelf because most may not have progeny to hand it over to. Experience suggests much can be said on either side of these generalizations.
An individual’s performance in political office — as indeed in other jobs — is likely to depend more on individual personality, energy levels, and ethical and value systems than on marital status, say consultant psychiatrists who specialise in family affairs. Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar have both been singled out by a US Congressional research group as the most efficient among India’s political administrators. But there the similarities between the two — personal and political — end. Mayawati is widely perceived to be a 24/7 chief minister but that has not put Uttar Pradesh among the best governed states in India.
“A single person may appear to have more time on hand than a married person, but how much and what a person sets to do and actually achieves is influenced by these factors — not marital status,” said Anjali Chhabria, a consultant psychiatrist in Mumbai who runs a clinic called Mind Temple.
“But a person who is married but unhappy is likely to have less energy and ambition than a single person who’s happy,” she said. “The state of mind determines ambitions — someone who’s happy, whether single or married, is more likely to want more and achieve more.”
One expert said the value system that is part of an individual’s personality will guide behaviour in handling issues where there is scope for nepotism or corruption. “It may seem that a single person without family concerns has less chance of being greedy — but that is necessarily true,” said Shashi Bhushan Kumar, a consultant psychiatrist in New Delhi. “Take the case of Bihar’s [chief mimister] Nitish Kumar — he’s got a family, but has a very modest lifestyle,” Kumar said.
More time on hand may not necessarily translate into efficiency. Several studies in the past have suggested that marital status can influence mental health, sleep patterns, and even work performance. A study by social scientists at Aarhus University in Denmark released earlier this year, for instance, showed a positive association between being married and work effectiveness. The study based on an analysis of expatriate academics in Nordic countries showed that married people appeared to have better work outcomes than single individuals.
Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, who lost his wife to pulmonary edema in 2007, and Omar, who probably lost his wife to incompatibility, may both disagree. Nitish advocates seldom tire of arguing that his “single” status is what gives him the edge over competition. Omar has suggested his being single has not impacted his work.
Nitish has a credible ring to his claims on being clean — he is a widower, his son is a meditative recluse, he has nobody to accumulate money and pass on to. The same does not hold true of Jayalalithaa who suffers a credibility deficit on the cleanliness count; she may not have a family but she does, like former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, has a foregrounded foster family. In both cases, the foster families weighed heavier on the “single” leaders than many other real families do.
So a club it is, but between one single and another lies a fair duality. Narendra Modi only just underlined that to us, unveiling Jashodaben on his ticket to Prime Ministership.