India’s politicians need a lot of time to attend to 1.4 billion people. And with corruption widespread, those without families are often seen as less likely to steal.
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When President Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, take their place on the red carpet at the White House on Thursday to welcome Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, there will be an asymmetry of sorts in the picture-perfect setting.
Mr. Modi will go stag.
While a family-centric image is often a political selling point in the United States, in India, many top leaders — the prime minister chief among them — are proudly unattached, to make a statement that no other commitment can come between them and the nation.
Work-life balance? Not for politicians in the world’s largest democracy, who stay busy attending to the needs of 1.4 billion people and compete with one another in their declarations of sleep deprivation. (Mr. Modi clocks only four hours of slumber a night, his aides say.)
“Every moment of my time, every pore of my body, is only for my countrymen,” the prime minister said in 2019 after winning re-election.
India may seem a strange place for expressions of solitary political devotion. Here, family comes before self and arranged marriages keep families strung together. Dynastic families remain important in politics: Nearly a third of new members of Parliament have had a relative in elective office or a prominent party position, according to one study.
But in a country tired of official corruption, with lawmakers enriching themselves and their families and ensuring political futures for their children, many voters have come to believe that single politicians are less likely to steal.
“The very strong perception,” said Ajoy Bose, a journalist and author, “is that they have no personal interest. That they belong to the people.”
Many young Indians come under intense pressure to get married. In the political and spiritual spheres, however, “a single person is not considered selfish, but someone who has made a sacrifice and is looked up to like a god or goddess,” Mr. Bose said.
Prominent in the group of unmarried politicians are Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the Indian National Congress party, and Mamata Banerjee, the top politician in the state of West Bengal and a forceful opponent of Mr. Modi’s. (She is said to get even less sleep, just three hours a night.)
Others include Naveen Patnaik, the powerful chief minister of Odisha State; Yogi Adityanath, the Hindu monk who runs India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, and is seen as a potential successor to Mr. Modi; and Mayawati, the leader of one of the biggest political organizations for lower-caste Indians. (Mr. Bose, who wrote a biography of Ms. Mayawati, said she would hold important meetings in her bedroom and greet bureaucrats in her nightgown.)
Before them, of course, was Mohandas K. Gandhi, who after being thrust into an arranged marriage at age 13 and having four children swore off sex in his 30s and submerged himself in gaining India’s independence from Britain.
Nobody in the current cohort, however, has leveraged singlehood more effectively than Mr. Modi, said Neerja Chowdhury, a political commentator and editor.
“His team has carefully crafted that image. Whether on the stairs of the airplane, or at the inauguration of an underpass, or seated on a bullet train, you only find Mr. Modi in the frame,” Ms. Chowdhury said. “The political messaging is, ‘I am there for you. I will take care of things.’”
Today, Mr. Modi, 72, lives by himself in the sprawling prime minister’s residence, his work seemingly the totality of his existence. But his life story is not so simple.
When he was a teenager, he abandoned an arranged marriage and wandered the Himalayas, searching for spiritual meaning. He rose up the ranks of a right-wing Hindu organization and became a preacher.
In the early 2000s, when he ran for state office, he left blank a space on an election questionnaire asking about his marital status. It was only during his first run for prime minister, in 2014, that he disclosed that he had been married, having always portrayed himself as unattached.
He is believed to have never lived with his wife. He said in an interview with a Bollywood actor in 2019 that he had “detached” himself from his family at a young age and learned “to leave all the pleasures of life.”
Many voters have been swayed by Mr. Modi’s carefully crafted image — one of an incorruptible leader who is also a kind of spiritual guru, detached from the demands of family and marriage.
“For Modi-ji,” said Parneet Ghuman, the owner of a fleet of taxis in New Delhi, “the country is his family.”
Mr. Modi himself has played this notion up.
“I’ve no familial ties,” he said at an election rally in 2014. “Who would I try to benefit through corruption?”
Some Indians have been inspired by Mr. Modi to also remain single and single-minded. Among them is Sandhya Leima, who works with an organization in India’s northeast that goes door to door to promote the prime minister’s government programs.
“I am touching 40 and will remain single,” she said. “Like Mr. Modi, I want to be able to dedicate my life for the country.”