All the Single (Indian Politicians)

Why are so many Indian politicians unmarried? And why do Indian voters not seem to care about their private lives?

To govern India is to oversee a country bubbling over with 1.2 billion people, a triumph of procreation. Ironically, then, one of the safest bets about India's upcoming general election is this: The next prime minister to move into the official residence on 7 Race Course Road will do so unencumbered by a family of his or her own.

The election, beginning in phases on April 7 and lasting five weeks, has become a race of singletons. Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party's candidate and the front-runner, left his wife, Jashodaben, in the late 1960s, the better to build his political career; he has not spoken to her since. Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the incumbent Congress party, is his party's presumptive choice for prime minister; he's 43 years old, unmarried, and, as far as common knowledge goes, unattached. The calculus of coalitions may also yield the leaders of smaller, state-level parties as prime minister -- J. Jayalalithaa of Tamil Nadu, say, or Naveen Patnaik of Odisha, neither of whom has ever been married.

In the craft of image-making in U.S. politics, the family looms large. Only one American bachelor has ever been elected president -- James Buchanan, who took office in 1857 -- and campaigns today regularly display candidates onstage with their families, arms twined behind backs and faces aglow with smiles. In a 2007 Gallup survey, three out of four Americans polled said that a politician's position on "family values" would have an important influence on their votes. The United States demands to know its aspiring first families intimately and to see them as tight, happy units.

The Indian voter seems to worry much less about the domestic lives of India's politicians or at least is more comfortable electing those who depart from the nuclear family. This is true both for national and regional figures. Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati, women who head powerful regional parties and have been chief ministers of the important states of West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, respectively, are unmarried. M. Karunanidhi, a giant of Tamil Nadu politics who served five times as the state's chief minister, has two wives, a fact he has never tried to mask. (Among Hindus, Indian law punishes polygamy only if one of the wives files a complaint.) Gegong Apang and Dorjee Khandu, former chief ministers of the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, wedded several women apiece without divorcing any of them. When questioned by opposition politicians after his second marriage, Apang pointed out, by way of justification, "My father had six wives."

It isn't easy to pin down the reason for this quirk of Indian political culture. One might look first -- as one always tends to -- at Mahatma Gandhi, and his peculiar acts of self-abnegation, such as disregarding his wife and four sons to devote his energies to politics. Gandhi made impractical demands of his sons, demanding that they be celibate and as committed to the Indian freedom struggle as he was. When his relationship with his eldest son, Harilal, soured, Gandhi wrote in 1925 in his magazine, Young India: "Men may be good, not necessarily their children."

Such is Gandhi's hold over the Indian imagination that he may have set a model of service before self. His protégé Jawaharlal Nehru, widowed in 1936, never remarried -- he served from 1947 to 1964 as independent India's first prime minister. Singlehood can even become an article of pride for politicians. "Chamari hoon, kunwari hoon, tumhari hoon," Mayawati has often proclaimed in her election rallies. "I'm of low caste, I'm unmarried, and I'm yours." The latter two-thirds of this formulation is, of course, not something Karunanidhi or Apang could incorporate into their speeches.

An alternative theory might discern a streak of live-and-let-live liberalism -- surprising for a country whose judiciary has freshly judged gay sex to be illegal. The electorate appears to have tacitly decided that the configuration of a politician's family is a personal matter that has little bearing on his or her career. In New Delhi, rumors with the ring of truth swirl about the sexual preferences or infidelities of married ministers, but journalists rarely attempt to sharpen this gossip into hard news. The politician's family, it would seem, is off limits to the public, to be kept well away from the spotlight -- at least until the offspring can run for election and turn the family into a dynasty, as happens alarmingly often in Indian politics.

Candidates largely abstain from jabs at their rivals' private lives, possibly unwilling to cast the first stone. Even for reporters to pose such questions can feel unseemly. In the handful of interviews that he has granted over the past couple of years, Modi has never been asked about the wife he left behind. When the Press Trust of India, a wire agency, asked Rahul Gandhi about his singlehood in March, it was an unusual enough occurrence to make news. Gandhi replied, "Right now I am engaged in fighting the elections. Unfortunately, I have not been focused on private life."

"Is it two years from now, one year from now?" his interrogator pressed.

"When I find the right girl," Gandhi responded.

"That means you have not found the right girl?" the reporter asked.

"When I find the right girl," Gandhi said again, icily, "I will get married."

Alongside Gandhi and Modi in the troika of politicians commanding national stature, though, is Arvind Kejriwal: a crusading upstart and a quintessential family man. Kejriwal and his wife, Sunita, met when they were training to join the Indian Revenue Service; they have two children in school; and Kejriwal's parents live with them in a small apartment on the outskirts of Delhi. This is a family unit seemingly begging for photo-ops and campaign advertisements. But even here, an iron curtain keeps Kejriwal's family out of our view; when I interviewed him last year and asked whether I might speak to his wife, he demurred, saying he'd rather I simply talked politics with him. He was keen, as most other Indian leaders are, to separate his life and his work, to be considered in no dimension at all except the political. 



When Sanctions Aren't Enough

If NATO wants to stanch Russian adventurism in Eastern Europe, it needs a comprehensive security plan (and fast).

It should be clear now that the West has a Russian security problem. Twice in the last six years, the Kremlin has seized territory in a neighboring country on the grounds of protecting minorities or ethnic Russians and Russian speakers. In each instance, the rejoinder from the West proved to be inadequate. Now, this threat demands a broad response that goes beyond the steps taken to date, that will deter the Kremlin from further aggression.

In 2008, the victim was Georgia. The Russian army took control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and recognized their declarations of independence. This past winter the victim was Ukraine. Russian troops seized Crimea and proctored a dubious referendum in which 97 percent of the voters allegedly chose annexation by Russia. Less than one week after the vote, the Russian government formally "annexed" Crimea.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has since declared that he has no further territorial designs on Ukraine. In his March 18 speech in the Duma, however, he noted that the Bolsheviks in 1918 gave to Ukraine the "historical South of Russia" (a swath of land from Kharkiv, Luhansk, and Donetsk in Ukraine's northeast stretching southwest to Odessa) with "no consideration for the ethnic makeup of the population." He reiterated his intention to protect Russians abroad and expressed concern about the "ongoing disorder" in Ukraine. Yet it is the Kremlin that continues to send in clandestine agents to stir up unrest and continues to marshal large military forces near Ukraine's eastern border.

Putin has shown a willingness to violate sovereign borders, Russian obligations, and international law. Having declared himself the protector of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers outside of Russia, he has used this principle to pressure neighboring governments and to change territorial borders by force.

The question now is how the United States and NATO should respond. President Barack Obama has designed financial sanctions to chasten the Kremlin for its aggression against Ukraine, and the European Union has followed suit. But Obama now needs to lead NATO in developing a security response -- the West needs to take seriously the possibility of future Russian aggression.

There are many countries at risk from Kremlin trouble making "on behalf" of ethnic Russians. Of most immediate concern to NATO are its Baltic members. Ethnic Russians make up 28 percent of the population in Latvia and 25 percent in Estonia (and 6 percent in Lithuania). NATO should consider measured steps to increase its defensive capabilities in the Baltic states, for example by providing anti-aircraft missiles and anti-armor systems. Putin's aggressive concern for ethnic Russians is also a danger to the states of Central Asia. Ethnic Russians number 23 percent of Kazakhstan's population, concentrated in the north along the border with Russia.

The U.S. decision to increase the contingent of F-15s in Lithuania and dispatch F-16s to Poland were smart steps to assure nervous Central European allies, but more is necessary. NATO should continue to commit at least 10 fighters -- the number of U.S. F-15s now in Lithuania, up from the usual four NATO fighters -- to the Baltic air-policing mission for the foreseeable future.

At the same time, NATO should review its policy on its eastern flank. In 1997, it affirmed that "in the current and foreseeable security environment, the Alliance will carry out its collective defense and other missions by ensuring the necessary interoperability, integration, and capability for reinforcement rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces." Putin's actions have dramatically altered the European security environment; the Alliance should consider whether it should change its policy in response.

NATO attention should not exclude its southeastern flank. Cynical Kremlin exploitation of ethnic Russian minorities makes Transnistria in Moldova, Romania's neighbor, a potential flashpoint.

The point of this review and the deployments to NATO's Baltic and Central European members is to deter further Russian aggression and to signal to the Russian General Staff that the seizure of Crimea has complicated their strategic position.

In parallel with the above steps, NATO should freeze all arms sales to Russia. The German government announced last week that it would not proceed with the sale of an advanced combat simulator to the Russian army. The French should cancel, or at a minimum suspend, sale of Mistral-class helicopter assault ships to the Russian navy.

There is no expectation that American or NATO forces should defend Ukraine from further Russian invasion. But there is every reason to help Ukraine to defend itself. First, the West should help Ukraine guard itself from Russian subversion. It should provide border control equipment and training to help Kiev keep Russian agitators and provocateurs from entering the country. Second, the West should also share intelligence with Ukraine about Russian efforts to destabilize the country and Russian military plans threatening Ukraine. Third, NATO should conduct regularly scheduled joint exercises in Ukraine. Finally, should the Russian military continue its threatening stance, NATO should provide anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, and appropriate training, that would raise the costs of any further aggression against Ukraine.

The Kremlin's aggressive new posture could threaten other states on its border, including Georgia and energy-rich Azerbaijan. Kazakhstan -- where 23 percent of the population, or higher along the northern border with Russia, is ethnic Russian -- also might be vulnerable. Uzbekistan in the past has had concerns about Russian ambitions in the Central Asian region. Key NATO members should consult with the governments of these countries on the implications of Moscow's apparent new policy.

These steps would bolster NATO security, strengthen Ukraine's ability to resist aggression, and offer political support to other countries made nervous by Putin's recent actions. More pointedly, such a show of strength could discourage the Russian leader from more Crimeas.