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Indians prefer politicians who refuse to have sex or get married

Oddly enough, this appears to be a legacy of Western colonialism.

Narendra modi with microphoneEnlarge
Chaste enough for India? (Punit Paranjpe/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI, India — In the US, politicians routinely wield their spouse as a potent political weapon, to define their character and help win elections. Think Hillary Clinton, Jackie Onassis, Todd Palin, and the like.

In India, the opposite is true. A spouse is viewed as a liability, an obligation that will distract from a politician’s duty to his country. Being committed to family — a sign of moral purpose in the West — is seen as a motive for corruption. India has a tradition of leaders who are either single or distant from their families. Mahatma Gandhi was married and had four children, but took a vow of celibacy when he was 38 and was seldom seen in public with his family.

Likewise, the frontrunner to be India’s next prime minister, Narendra Modi, has for decades posed as a single man, and has played that up as an asset. At a February rally in Himachal Pradesh, for example, he said, “I have no familial ties, who would I ever try to benefit through corruption?”

But just after India’s month-long election opened on April 7, the popular nationalist caused a stir by finally admitting that he has a wife — at least on paper. The couple were married when they were both children, but at 18 he refused to consummate the marriage. Instead, he became a political activist with a right-wing Hindu organisation called Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which requires some officials to remain celibate.

Celibacy, however, may also be a tricky matter for Modi.  After rising in the BJP — a major opposition party that includes the RSS — and becoming the chief minister of Gujarat state, Modi faced occasional embarrassment over his relationship with Anandiben Patel, a minister in his government. She is often described as a “confidante” in the Indian media, and is expected to take over as chief minister if he becomes prime minister.

“Indians say “Westerners are domesticated animals. They listen to the commands. They don’t think for themselves.””

Anandiben’s husband, Mofatbhai Patel, abandoned the BJP after 35 years as an activist, in protest over his wife’s close relationship with Modi. The husband has made cryptic remarks widely interpreted as accusations that the two had an affair. "When she entered into politics, she severed all relations with the family for no fault of ours. Her behavior has become deformed and Narendra Modi is responsible for it," Mafatbhai said in 2007.

Modi’s political opponents have tried to score points over his personal history. So far, there has been little or no impact on his extraordinary popularity.

So why do Indians seem not to care? And why was it so important for Modi to claim that he was single in the first place?

For insights, GlobalPost talked to Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik, the Chief Belief Officer of retail giant the Future Group and a Culture Consultant to Reliance Industries, India’s second largest publicly traded company.

Pattanaik has written extensively on Indian leadership attitudes in his book Business Sutra. Global Post asked him to explain why Indians like their leaders to be celibate.

The interview has been edited and condensed by GlobalPost.

GlobalPost: In the middle of an election Narendra Modi essentially admitted that he’d been misleading the public about his marital status. Why has this had so little impact?

Devdutt Pattanaik: If this had happened in an American election, he would have been out. In India, fundamentally, nobody believes what is said or written.

“Show me evidence,” is a very Euro-American trait. In India even if a person goes to jail and a court says he’s a criminal, people will say, “No, I don’t think he is a criminal. The system has been against him. I believe in him.” And they will dismiss the court order as the whims and fancies of some political party. Nobody sees the court as the ultimate God. This Judeo-Christian structure of God, commandment, confession and hell does not apply to India or China, or in most of the world.

So in that light, everybody knew that he had a marriage, so his confession is not a great revelation. His believers believe in him and the disbelievers disbelieve in him.

In India morality and ethics are far more fluid and flexible. Which from a Western perspective looks hypocritical. Indians would say “Westerners are domesticated animals. They listen to the