Newspaper article International New York Times

The Politics of Giving Up Family Life

Newspaper article International New York Times

The Politics of Giving Up Family Life

Article excerpt

It is hard to conceive of any other major democracy in which leading candidates have renounced family life. But self-denial is a grand tradition in India.

At a campaign rally earlier this month, after barreling through his standard talking points about corruption in the governing Congress party, Narendra Modi, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, offered this curious qualification for the post of Indian prime minister: that he could not possibly be corrupt, because he is a single man.

"Why would I indulge in corruption? For whom?" reasoned Mr. Modi, 63. "There is no one behind me or in front of me," he continued, using a Hindi phrase that means he has no family. "I surrender this body. I surrender this heart."

Certainly his opponent, Rahul Gandhi, will seize on this moment to cast himself as a wholesome, ordinary family man, as any self- respecting American politician would do? Actually, no. Mr. Gandhi -- who differs from Mr. Modi in practically every other aspect of his biography -- has also bragged about his unattached and childless state.

"If I get married and have children, I will be status-quoist, and I will like my children to take my place," Mr. Gandhi, 43, was quoted as saying at a Congress party gathering last year.

It is hard to conceive of any other major democracy in which the two leading candidates have renounced family life, much less kvelled about it. But self-denial is a grand tradition in India's public life.

Consider Mohandas K. Gandhi, who was so intent on observing his vow of celibacy that he tested himself by sleeping beside young women. Indeed, Hinduism teaches reverence for intense self-control, growing in force as a man passes through four stages of life -- the student, the householder, the hermit and, finally, the wandering ascetic.

To this day, many of India's political heavyweights are single men and women. Mr. Modi and Mr. Gandhi are tapping into an age-old belief system, but doing so "instrumentally," sensing rising disgust with corruption, said the historian Ramachandra Guha, author of "India After Gandhi."

"It is a religious, cultural tradition, and it is also statecraft, because it means you are not going to loot the public exchequer," he said. …

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