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Solitary Reapers

Do we let single netas make political hay because we assume probity?

Solitary Reapers
Illustration by Sorit
Solitary Reapers

Single...And Loved It

Plato: The Greek philosopher, widely believed to have been homosexual, openly questioned the institution of marriage, and never married.

Joan of Arc: The French saint thwarted several proposals that came her way, citing a vow of celibacy she took at the age of 13. She chose to remain single against the wishes of her father.

Adolf Hitler: Hitler remained unmarried till the last 40 hours of his life, when shortly after his defeat, he exchanged vows with his mistress Eva Braun. They killed themselves a day later.

Coco Chanel: The iconic fashion designer dated some of the most influential men of her time, but steadfastly refused to marry.

Condoleezza Rice: The former US secretary of state did come close to tying the knot but snuck out. Her single status even garnered her criticism when her support and advocacy for war in Iraq was seen to be because she had “no immediate family”.

Paul Allen: The Microsoft co-founder’s bachelorhood has been charity’s gain, with a generous portion of Allen’s billions dedicated to philanthropy.


It is singularly interesting that three of the five newly sworn-in chief ministers—Mamata Banerjee, Jayalalitha as also N. Rangaswamy in Pondicherry—are single. They join the ‘singles’ club of Mayawati, Naveen Patnaik, Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar (a widower). Quite odd for an allegedly ‘dynastic’ polity. Countries the world over have always had their ‘first family’. Politicians with families are seen as more stable and wholesome; unattached candidates are viewed more suspiciously, as non-conformist oddballs. In India, of course, family is big and every singleton dreads the question, “So when are you getting married?”. Then what is it about us, with all our emphasis on strong family bonds, that we elect single leaders in state after state, north, south, east and west? Are we, as a country, more liberal-minded, more mature in leaving the subject of a politician’s family alone, not even being bothered about whether he or she has one or not?

Well, not entirely, notes historian and author Mukul Kesavan, especially when it comes to women leaders. “Mamata, Jayalalitha and Mayawati are often portrayed in unflattering ways, as authoritarian and temperamental leaders, willing to make and break alliances whimsically,” he says. He adds that it’s women leaders who bear the brunt of the rumour mills about their private lives rather than single male leaders like former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. “In contrast, Sheila Dixit, a mother, is seen as the embodiment of a stable, non-threatening and competent leader,” says Kesavan. Agrees Leela Samson, dancer and chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification, and single, “Men view single women at every stage as vulnerable, easier to attack and gossip about, and without a man at your side, you are also viewed as easy game.”

“Mamata, Mayawati and Jayalalitha are often portrayed in unflattering ways as authoritarian and temperamental leaders.” Mukul Kesavan, Historian and Author “When I was young, Jyoti Basu used to admonish me for not thinking about my personal life, but he knew that the party was my life.” Biman Bose, Chairman, Left Front

“In India, where family is so important, there could be a likelihood that those with families would be more prone to corruption.” Ruskin Bond, Author “Whether a person is single or married, what does it matter so long as they do the job...what matters is your capability.” Shobana, Actress

“Politics is a 24/7 career. It helps if a leader is single. I think for every one of the single leaders, the question is one of work ethic.” Alyque Padamsee, Advertising Guru “The single status is an uncomplicated state of being. When people know that your work is all that matters to you, it’s easier.” Leela Samson, Chairperson, Censor Board

But despite such biases, these single women leaders never miss a chance to use their ‘family-free’ status as evidence of their commitment to politics. Mamata Banerjee, who lives with her mother, declared, on the eve of the West Bengal poll results, “I don’t have any other family...they (pointing to the crowds) are all the family that I have.” Mayawati’s rallying cry has been, “Chamari hoon, kunwari hoon, tumhari hoon (I am a cobbler’s daughter, I am single, I am yours),” listing her singlehood as a USP, right after her Dalit credentials. “Jayalalitha’s speech after she won was about the mandate against the ‘dynasty of corruption’,” says Kesavan. But despite such rhetoric, single leaders are not viewed very differently from their married counterparts when it comes to having a clean image. Author Ruskin Bond, who has remained single and has an adopted family, thinks it is too “sweeping a statement” to suggest that single leaders are somehow less corrupt. “But yes,” he offers, “in India, where family is so important that we are expected to fend for them, there could be a likelihood that those with families to support would be more inclined towards corruption.” Write and ad guru Suhel Seth disagrees: “I don’t at all think that there is a perception of single leaders being a better bet. It used to be said that Narendra Modi is single and that he would, therefore, find less reason to bribe. It’s an old notion, which has faded. Singledom is no longer a virtue.”

“Politics is a 24/7 profession. So it helps to be single,” says ad filmmaker, Alyque Padamsee. “I think for every one of the single leaders, it is a question of work ethic. Women politicians are even more reluctant (to marry) because if they become mothers, they cannot think of staying away from their children for 18 to 20 hours a day.” Kamla Bhasin, a well-known feminist, believes that singlehood is almost a foregone conclusion for any woman who aspires to get to the top. “In politics, it becomes easier to just forget about having a family. And it’s not just the politicians. Even women CEOs, who have considerable work commitments, prefer to stay single,” she says.

But interestingly, the voting public doesn’t appear to judge leaders by their relationship status, even though our society still views unattached people with suspicion. “I think, till you reach your 40s, you are viewed with suspicion because you disturb the social structure. You are either seen as someone ‘on the prowl’ or your sexual orientation is questioned,” says author and journalist Jerry Pinto. “But in politics, I don’t think it matters. In fact, with no biological dependents, single leaders can devote more time to their constituency. Mayawati used this to imply that the people were her family.” Actress Shobhana, who is single herself, also feels that a person’s marital status is no measure of his or her ability. “Whether a person is single or married, what does it matter so long as they do the job? Mamata was asked the question about whether being a woman makes a difference and she said it does not. I agree with her. Whether you are single or married, a man or woman, what matters is your capability,” she says. Chandni Parekh, a social psychologist, agrees. “Take Dharmendra and Hema Malini as examples of people in the public eye. Fans continue to like them despite the fact that they went against convention. I don’t think Indians care too much about the relationship status of celebrities, especially in the case of politicians, where caste, class and religious biases play far more determining roles, along with the political mood,” she argues.

But some leaders believe singledom and politics are ‘soul-mates’ by default. CPI(M) state secretary and Left Front chairman Biman Bose, a bachelor, remembers how, in his younger days, former Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu often affectionately chided him for never giving thought to his personal life. Bose never married and has been involved in active politics since his student days, often spending nights in the party headquarters at Alimuddin Street. “But he (Jyoti Basu) also knew that this was my life,” Bose told Outlook. Tarun Ganguly, political commentator and an expert on Bengal politics, says the state has seen many such leaders. “Bengal politics is replete with leaders who remained single in order to dedicate their lives to the service of the people,” he says. In fact, the first two chief ministers of Bengal, Prafulla Chandra Ghosh and Bidhan Chandra Roy, who is considered the architect of modern Bengal, were single. Leela Samson agrees that being single does help you focus on your work more. “I believe that the single status is an uncomplicated state of being. You are not carrying baggage. When people get to understand that your work is all that matters to you, they find dealing with you easier. The single person has also said ‘no’ to a complex and very cross-wired alternative. It requires some guts to remain single.” If that’s so, more of our politicians are showing it now. Ekla Cholo Re seems to be their current credo.

By Smita Mitra with Pushpa Iyengar in Chennai, Dola Mitra in Calcutta, Neha Bhatt in Delhi

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