When personal becomes political: matrimony and the Indian political class

In a nation where politics is a family business, the marital status of politicians assumes tremendous significance. The recent commotion over the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate merely reinforces the double standards and inherent bias of India's patriarchal and caste system. 

22 April 2014
Surrounded by a crowd of supporters, Narendra Modi filed his nomination papers

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi filed his nomination papers from Vadodara Lok Sabha seat

“Love can flourish only as long as it is free and spontaneous; it tends to be killed by the thought of duty. To say that it is your duty to love so-and-so is the surest way to cause you to hate him or her.”

― Bertrand Russell, Marriage and Morals

The ongoing national polls in India have been one of the most acrimonious and telegenic battles over ideological righteousness, with political leaders, in the name of taking up the cudgels on behalf of the dispossessed, simultaneously ushering in a phenomenal erosion of decency and norms.

The ongoing battle reached a new low when the Indian National Congress, one of the oldest political formations that traces its roots to India’s independence struggle, approached the Indian Election Commission through its senior leader, Kapil Sibal (who, incidentally, is the Union Law Minister), over the issue of the marital status of Narendra Modi. Mr. Sibal requested the Commission to take suitable action against the BJP leader for having concealed information and for not having furnished details about his marital status in the election affidavits filed by him in the past.

This development comes in the wake of the Supreme Court judgment and the new guidelines of the Election Commission of September 2013, which makes it mandatory for political candidates to provide complete details in their affidavits. Consequently, for the first time Mr. Modi has officially declared himself as a married man, which was already an open secret in Gujarati society.

The revelation of his wife’s name in an affidavit filed before the Election Commission, along with his nomination papers for Vadodara Lok Sabha seat, has opened a tinderbox of patriarchal bias, reinforcing the fact that women in India continue to be perceived and projected as symbols and carriers of community pride.

The public disclosure of the marital status provided ideal political ammunition for Mr. Modi’s detractors, who have sought to confront him over the alleged betrayal and desertion of his wife, thereby questioning his credentials for the post of Prime Minister, and over his electoral promises concerning the empowerment of Indian women.

What was missed by most of the detractors was the very futility of fossilizing the existence of two individuals who had amicably reconciled with the inevitability of tradition and patriarchy. The only ray of hope in this entire controversy seems to be their resolve to move ahead, notwithstanding their individual and community’s social location in a traditional society governed by a state which is confronted with modernity.

This is certainly an exception to the Great Indian Middle Class audience that continues to get baptized in the age-old Victorian morals and retains its adherence to eurocentric values through educational institutions bequeathed by its former British rulers that continue to operate as the ideological apparatus of the Indian state in present settings. The larger picture missed--Mr. Modi’s marital status--by telegenic political rivals in this otherwise short-lived brouhaha was an abdication of core issues in confronting one’s political opponents.

The clarification provided by Mr. Modi's elder brother confirms the inevitability of certain social groups breaking free from the traditions embedded in their primordial identities, when they lack the requisite social capital and economic empowerment. Since these issues date back to around five decades ago, the compulsion to adhere to such social norms was acute and social ostracism could have been the only logical conclusion for individuals and families not subscribing to community norms and interdependence. Moreover, the facts need to be analyzed in the context of Mr. Modi’s poor social stature and traditionally orthodox family background in his earlier days, before he undertook his political journey. Interestingly, the fact that it was a marriage of minors and not of two consenting adults is selectively brushed aside in the media’s political discourse.

However, one could argue that the Supreme Court’s guidelines need to move further towards consonance with ‘modern times’ and to extract information from Indian political parties and their great leaders concerning their relations even outside the institution of marriage, and about children born both within and outside of wedlock, rather than seeking to emasculate them with general queries about their marital status.

The recent court ruling over the paternity suit against veteran former Congress leader ND Tiwari is a case in point. It has merely highlighted the duplicity practiced by the Indian political class since the Nehruvian years, unlike their French counterparts who have displayed enough grace to acknowledge their conduct in public. In the Indian scenario, it is easy to camouflage these types of transgressions for symbolic purposes behind the façade of the institution of marriage, which is protected by the predominant male patriarchy of the nation. The BJP’s admonition of the Congress party’s scion over his personal comments on Modi’s marital status merely highlights what has continued to be perceived as an unwritten code. The open secret about the lives and the squabble within the Nehru-Gandhi family over the inheritance of legacy, dynasty and identity is suggestive of this code.

Such acts not only seek to reflect a lopsided understanding of the nation, but also clearly seek to reinforce traditional norms favouring the subjugation of Indian women. The political discourse of some political parties seeks to embed the conventional order that ensures the subordination of women and their objectification at the service of the male-driven social and political order.

Finally, what would have been the terms of reference for the political discourse, if the person in question had origins from society’s upper caste demographic?

The present hullabaloo is clearly an unpleasant diversion from the core issues of Indian electoral politics. This development is certainly an open invitation to unravel more secrets of an increasingly bizarre kind and much more uncomfortable truths across the Indian political spectrum, causing more upheavals in the nation.

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