No first lady for India as bachelors battle for prime minister's job

India's Congress Party Vice-President Rahul Gandhi (left) gestures as he delivers a speech during the All India Congress Committee (AICC) meeting in New Delhi on Jan 17, 2014, and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) prime ministerial candidate and Chief Min
India's Congress Party Vice-President Rahul Gandhi (left) gestures as he delivers a speech during the All India Congress Committee (AICC) meeting in New Delhi on Jan 17, 2014, and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) prime ministerial candidate and Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi (right) speaks during the party's national council meeting at Ram Lila Grounds in New Delhi on Jan 19, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (AFP) - In marriage-obsessed India where people are expected to wed young and produce progeny soon after, two single men are battling it out on the election trail for the prime minister's job.

On one side is fiery frontrunner Narendra Modi, 63, a white-bearded Hindu nationalist who likes to be seen as a modern-day "monk with a mission", according to biographer Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay.

On the other is Rahul Gandhi, 43, the scion of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty who tops eligible bachelor lists and is known as the "reluctant prince" for his diffidence about assuming his family inheritance as leader of the ruling Congress party.

Mr Modi, the hawkish conservative candidate for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, tipped to oust the scandal-tainted Congress in the polls starting April 7, reportedly walked away from a marriage arranged when he was a child.

He has never commented on the relationship, but the woman, 62-year-old retired school teacher Jashodaben, said recently that she didn't "feel bad" that she has never been acknowledged. "I know he is doing so due to destiny," she told the Indian Express in February.

Reports say the marriage was never consummated and Mr Modi went on to rise through the ranks of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) Hindu group which frowns on marriage for its senior cadres.

Mr Modi, a strict vegetarian who says he "actually enjoys loneliness", has made a virtue of his de facto single status, saying it will help him clean up India's rampant corruption. "I've no familial ties. Who would I ever try to benefit through corruption?" he told a rally, claiming only those free of filial ties can end what opponents charge are years of corrupt rule by the Congress party.

And he wouldn't be the first single man as Indian PM.

Atal Behari Vajpayee, another BJP leader who served as premier from 1998 to 2004, said he never wed because he "did not get time".

Both Mr Modi and Mr Gandhi keep their private lives strictly under wraps - so much so that according to a Google trends report, some of the most frequently searched questions are "Who is Modi's wife?" and "Who is Gandhi's girlfriend?"

Mr Gandhi last year declared he did not want to wed, saying he feared he would "become status-quoist and want my children to take my place" and perpetuate his family's dominant political role.

But in words that revived hopes of ambitious mothers across India last month, he said he would wed "when I find the right girl". In the past, he has been linked to several foreign girlfriends.

But being single is no disadvantage in Indian politics, according to Subhash Agrawal who runs the think-tank India Focus. "In the Hindu tradition, being an ascetic and renunciation (of worldly things) has always been respected," Mr Agarwal told AFP.

Also from a voter viewpoint, not having a family "means there is much more chance the politician is honest - he's no family to enrich".

In the unlikely event that the next prime minister is chosen from one of India's smaller regional parties, there are high chances of a fellow, but female, singleton being selected. Two of the most influential ones - Mamata Banerjee from West Bengal and Jayalalithaa Jayaram from southern Tamil Nadu - have no acknowledged partners.

A third female regional powerbroker, Mayawati, is also unmarried.

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