Bachelor Politicians: Politics of Chaste Misogyny

Representational Illustration
Why do politicians hold up celibacy as a virtue in a country of 1.3 billion?

With 171,000 shares on Facebook, an article detailing Indira Gandhi’s alleged affairs from her husband has caught the attention of the masses. But why is a dead Prime Minister’s sex life important?

India is a nation obsessed with celibacy – on the surface. For, if this obsession were practical, there wouldn’t be 1.3 billion people on the subcontinent. Sex sells – articles, headlines and preconceptions. And India’s female politicians are always suspect of overdoing it.

Why does Indian politics reek of chaste misogyny?

Chasteness, or sexual abstinence, is commonly seen as a virtue in India. From Mohandas K. Gandhi to Narendra Modi – being chaste in a position of power is a marketable virtue. It stems from the long-held beliefs around the virtues of the “Brahmacharya” – a word meaning a chaste bachelor.

If a male politician is unmarried, or in Modi’s case, unattached to his wife, he is seen as a Brahmachari. But the idea of Brahmachari seldom extends to women. Where unmarried women have held powerful posts, their chasteness is often put to question. From Indira Gandhi’s alleged affair with a yoga instructor to Gujarat Chief Minister Anandiben Patel’s alleged relations with Narendra Modi.

It’s not surprising either. The texts, be they Hindu or Buddhist, often wrote of Brahmacharya from a male perspective. Joseph S. Alter, who studied the phenomena of chaste politics and gender in India, called the rhetoric of brahmacharya “aggressively male”.

Women are the seductions from outside that tempt men’s souls, for as the Buddha put it:

Of all the scents that can enslave, none is more lethal than that of a woman. Of all the tastes that can enslave, none is more lethal than that of a woman. Of all the voices that can enslave, none is more lethal than that of a woman. Of all the caresses that can enslave, none is more lethal than that of a woman.

The virtues of celibacy – that it removes distraction, eliminates (if practised early) the chance of dynastic politics and that it frees up time for the politician to give the people – are fairly commendable. The issue is how much one buys into the idea of a celibate politician.

As George Orwell said, “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent, but the tests that have to be applied to them are not, of course, the same in all cases.” In India, an unmarried woman and an unmarried male politician are treated differently.

A Brahmachari is called one because he says he is. It’s a claim often left unaccountable for – because the private lives of politicians are considered taboo in this regard.

Journalists in India have been warned after speaking to the Prime Minister’s wife – once by Modi himself. And some have called to keep the matter private – respecting that she has moved on. This is unlike in Britain, where tabloid papers openly gossip about the sex lives of the rich and powerful. In India, similar rumours seldom make the journey from wagging tongue to print. Unless of course, rumours transcend into a sex scandal – which ends or dents careers, depending on one’s political fortitude.

When it comes to female politicians, all of them who have ruled Indians states (or even India) have been single during their term. One exception comes to mind, that of Rabri Devi, who served three terms as Bihar’s Chief Minister after her husband, Lalu Prasad Yadav, was ousted from the job.

The reasons behind this vary – early widowhood, divorces or being unmarried. But as Mukul Kesavan writes, unmarried women leaders are also freed of the accusation of being a man’s puppet – because marriage is inherently patriarchal. And as Mukul points out, it’s a trend not limited to just India. Women leaders across South Asia have also largely been single.

Do we hail bachelor politicians and scrutinize bachelorettes?

The narrative suggests so. Modi is called a ‘bachelor god’ despite his bachelorhood coming at the cost of distancing his wife. Gandhi is universally celebrated for his experiments – particularly for his decision to become a Brahmachari (a decision he did not consult his wife on).

Celibacy for the married is seldom a two-way street. Men dictate how and when celibacy becomes a political tool and when it becomes an object to be tested.

Today, five heads of state governments are unmarried. As former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister (who governs a state with a population greater than Russia’s) Mayawati put it: “I’m of low caste, I’m unmarried and I’m yours.” To counter this, her political opponents often accuse her of having an affair with another Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP) leader – an act that needn’t even be considered an affair as she is unmarried.

Uttar Pradesh’s latest CM is the country’s latest celebrity Brahmacharya. Opposing the Women’s Reservation Bill, he said:

This Bill will drown the Indian political system if it goes through…..If men develop feminine traits, they become gods, but if women develop masculine traits they become demons…

As soon as he took power as Chief Minister, one of Yogi Aditynath’s first moves on taking office was setting up “Anti-Romeo” squadrons – vigilante police who harass couples on the pretext of preventing “Love Jihad”. The politics of celibacy transcend the personal to become an act of enforcement.

Indeed, if politicians stayed chaste and kept it to themselves, it would be a different matter. But we hold chasteness up as an ideal. As Khushwant Singh noted, “nine-tenths of the violence and unhappiness in this country derives from sexual repression.”

With a population of over 1.3 billion, India is anything but a chaste nation. Why the people who lead it should be expected to be so is a historical inheritance – with little grounding in reality.

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