The Indian Political Landscape: Family Ties Not Required


In the bustling and diverse political scene of the United States, a candidate with presidential aspirations is seldom seen without a charming, camera-ready family by their side. History has solidified this expectation, with James Buchanan, who presided from 1857 to 1861, remaining the only unmarried president. In stark contrast, the political ethos of India seems to march to the beat of a different drum. Marital status and familial ties hold less sway over the electorate, as evidenced by multiple high-ranking politicians.

Congress party president Rahul Gandhi, a bachelor, has not needed marital status to justify his political stature. Atal Behari Vajpayee, a former prime minister, lived an untraditional family life with a longstanding partner and her kin without it affecting his popular vote. Current Prime Minister Narendra Modi even capitalized on his solitary status, touting it as a commitment to prevent nepotism and avoid favouring offspring should any have existed.

When political opponent Lalu Prasad Yadav slighted Modi for his lack of a traditional family setup, Modi adeptly reversed the comment to his advantage, just as he had previously countered the “chaiwala” taunt. In response, his supporters have rallied, with declarations of “Modi ka parivar” adorning signs, while Modi himself proclaimed India’s vast population as his family—a statement echoing his tenure’s inclusive approach.

This perception of family within the political realm starkly contrasts the American fixation on presidential families—a fixation perhaps fueled by concerns over the disintegration of traditional family units, skyrocketing divorce rates, and the paradox wherein same-sex couples seemed the most eager to marry despite social conservatism. In the US, the preservation of the family unit became a recurring political theme, but in India, it appears as though family values manifest differently; the emphasis is on ‘family first’, rather than ‘first family’.

India observed the Ambani pre-wedding extravaganza not only for its opulence but also as a projection of the ideal Indian family—unabated by potential feuds over business empires—as long as unity was showcased during celebratory family moments. The cultural currency of family unity seems so great that it eclipses the typical role of celebrities, rendering them merely background players in these familial displays of solidarity.

Contrasting with glitzy family portrayals, Narayana Murthy and Sudha Murty occupy the other end of the spectrum with a modest image that has captured the nation’s heart. Despite their substantial wealth, the Murthys’ apparent simplicity has become the subject of near-religious reverence, with their ordinary day-to-day activities taking on an almost miraculous quality in the eyes of the public.

These different family portrayals serve a common purpose, presenting an idealized version of the Indian family that belies the realities of domestic strife and sibling rivalries. On social media, these families present a harmonized and aspirational image, but for many, this image remains distant from the comfortable chaos of everyday familial life. This has cultivated a new social benchmark—the ‘Indian super family’, presenting an aspirational yet unattainable standard that extends beyond the extravagant Indian wedding.

The essence of this discourse isn’t about the Murthys or the Ambanis specifically; it’s about the transition of family values being co-opted as a commodity, its worth now calculable by its electoral appeal.

Following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, the Congress party’s campaign slogan centered around the sacrifices of a mother and son, harkening back to its powerful family legacy. This cultivated an image of a distinguished family that the public could revere and vote for, but not emulate.

Now, Prime Modi has redefined this paradigm, extending an open invitation to every Indian citizen to be part of his extended political ‘family’. It’s a clever strategy that reinforces a sense of belonging and ultimately translates into electoral support—a modern twist on family planning that intertwines personal connection with political gain.

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