The unmarried leader: A top defining factor of 2019 general elections

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Given how closely Indian life is bound to family, the unrelenting pressure on young people to marry, and the industry that orchestrates 10 million weddings a year, it is remarkable that the 2019 election battle will be decided largely by single leaders. 

This represents one of the most dramatic changes in India’s political landscape. In the late 1980s, not one of India’s 20 largest states was governed by a single chief minister. By last year that number had risen to eight. Today six chief ministers and many more ex-chief ministers are single, and this loose axis of the unattached will play a decisive role in building the alliances that will determine whether Narendra Modi wins a second term. 

This represents one of the most dramatic changes in India’s political landscape. In the late 1980s, not one of India’s 20 largest states was governed by a single chief minister. By last year that number had risen to eight. Today six chief ministers and many more ex-chief ministers are single, and this loose axis of the unattached will play a decisive role in building the alliances that will determine whether Narendra Modi wins a second term. 

This battle of the unwed is not just happenstance. Single leaders are rising in part on disgust with money politics. Just to compete in a country that provides no public funding for election campaigns, candidates have little choice but to raise money from private sources. This often means tapping the large underground economy and turning the campaign into a family business, entrusting the cash to relatives who won’t rat them out. 

The more cash flows under the table, the more gets diverted into private pockets, stoking public distrust. Respect for family empires now duels in the Indian mind with suspicion of what grasping relatives may be stealing. This opens the door to single politicians, who present themselves as free agents, committed only to public service, with no sons or daughters to empower or enrich. 

The image of a public servant married only to the job seems to have an increasingly strong appeal to voters frustrated by politicians who promise but don’t deliver, and an overburdened, understaffed state bureaucracy. Single leaders are now a powerful countervailing force to the dynasties that run like veins not only through Congress but the BJP and every major party outside the communists. 

The BJP currently accounts for half of the unmarried chief ministers, including Manohar Lal Khattar of Haryana, Sarbananda Sonowal of Assam, and Yogi Adityanath of Uttar Pradesh. One of the BJP’s first single chief ministers was Modi, who in the 2012 Gujarat election was telling voters, “Your money is safe with me because I have no son, no daughter, no brother, no sister.” Distancing himself from the corruption associated with political families, he insisted that “my family is the six crore people of Gujarat" 
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