Narendra Modi, single (sort of) and proud of it. Photographer: Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images
Narendra Modi, single (sort of) and proud of it. Photographer: Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images

Narendra Modi, the front runner to become India's next prime minister, just acknowledged that he's legally married to a woman with whom he hasn't lived in nearly half a century. That, however, is not the dubious part of what he has to say on marital life.

Modi can legitimately claim to be tapping into a long Indian tradition of ascetic leaders, from modern India's founder Mahatma Gandhi, who swore a vow of celibacy at age 37 after siring four sons, to long-haired Hindu sages living in Himalayan caves. Modi has said these hermits were his inspiration for leaving his then-teenage wife after a few months, before the marriage was consummated.

Where Modi stretches credulity is by claiming that his subsequent bachelorhood makes him less corruptible than his married (and consummated) rivals. He argues that in power, he would not be tempted to steal for his wife or offspring, or turn his position into a dynastic fiefdom -- a clear dig at the ruling Indian National Congress party's standard-bearer Rahul Gandhi, who is the son, grandson and great-grandson of former Indian prime ministers.

True sages may indeed be liberated from materialist cares, but not politicians. As Adam Graycar, director of Canberra's Transnational Research Institute on Corruption, says, levels of official corruption generally depend on three factors: the propensity of the politician, the availability of illicit funds, and the weakness of guardian institutions. A greedy spouse is just one in a long list of lesser potential factors that might motivate politicians to steal -- from cousins, to cronies, to campaign treasure chests.

In India right now, the availability of funds and weak institutions will continue to encourage corruption, regardless of who is in power. Despite a recent slowdown in India's economic growth, there remain billions of dollars to be skimmed off huge infrastructure projects, mining, commercial licenses, property sales and the like. Watchdog institutions, such as the recently approved "Lokpal" anti-corruption commission, have yet to establish themselves. Indians have legitimate complaints about the skyrocketing growth of official corruption over the past decade; the Economist magazine estimates that up to $12 billion in bribes may have changed hands during that time. And yet no one has suggested that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a mild-mannered former economist, is corrupt (even if he is married).

Indeed, a Modi victory could add to the opportunities for large-scale graft, because he has pledged to crack open the backlog of stalled industrial projects. Depending on the election results, he may also need to cobble together an unwieldy coalition in order to take power, and in the past, smaller parties have had to be bought off with especially lucrative Cabinet posts. If Modi leads his Bharatiya Janata Party to victory, he will in addition face great pressure to keep its coffers filled by whatever means necessary.

Focusing so intently on Modi himself -- and his supposed incorruptibility, decisiveness and drive -- is the wrong way to think about corruption. The question isn't whether the BJP leader can resist, as Singh has done, pocketing bribes, let alone whether he is married (in any case, his main challenger Rahul Gandhi is single, too). The struggle against official corruption in India requires the same kind of leader that the country itself does: one who will build and strengthen the institutions of state, make government more transparent, shrink opportunities for rent-seeking, and instill accountability and professionalism in the ranks of the administration. If a Prime Minister Modi were to reduce corruption, it would be because of the systems he put in place, not his missing spouse.

To contact the writer of this article: Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net