The cat’s out of the bag, officially: After years of speculation, Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s candidate for prime minister of India, has admitted he has a wife. The revelation came when he filled out his nomination form in an election registry on Wednesday. Where it stated “married to,” he wrote, “Jashodaben.” It’s the first time Modi has ever publicly recognized his spouse’s existence.
The story is that Modi’s family had arranged a marriage for him with Jashodaben in keeping with the traditions of their caste in their hometown. The Caravan reports it was a three-step process: “engagement at age three or four, a religious ceremony (shaadi) by the age of 13, and cohabitation (gauna) around the age of 18 or 20, when the parents felt the time had come.”
Modi and Jashodaben married at the age of 13, as planned. But, by the time Modi turned 18, he had left his wife behind to pursue volunteerism with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu nationalist ideological parent of the BJP.
While Modi kept hush about Jashodaben during his rise to prominence — the RSS has a strict policy on celibacy — reporters have been trying for years to find her. Darshan Desai, then a reporter with the Indian Express, was one of the first people to interview her following the 2002 Gujurat riots. He found her living in a one-room apartment that cost 100 rupees (currently about $1.66) a month. She had no bathroom.
Jashodaben, a schoolteacher, had been wary to give an interview at the time but said she prayed Modi would become prime minister one day.
Vinod K. Jose of The Caravan writes that “Modi kept an unsettlingly close watch on anyone who tried to learn about this past life.” Desai told Jose in detail what happened following his interview:
“I remember I had just reached home and removed my shoes when I got a call on my cell phone,” Desai told me. “The voice on the phone said in Gujarati, ‘The chief minister wants to speak with you.’ Soon, Modi came on the line. He said ‘Namaskar,’ and then he asked: ‘So what is the agenda?’
“I said, ‘I didn’t quite get you.’ And he said, ‘You have written against me. Your newspaper even started Modi Meter,’ referring to a column my paper ran during the riots. I just kept quiet, and he said, ‘I’m aware what you’ve been up to today. What you’ve done today goes much beyond. That’s why I want to know what your agenda is.’ I wasn’t scared, but I remember being a little nervous, and I said, ‘I have no agenda. You can contact my editor.’ He just said, ‘Okay. Think it over,’ and hung up the phone.”
After news of Modi’s wife broke, his older brother said in a statement Modi’s “whole life is a life of sacrifice” and that “this event of 45 or 50 years back of a poor family in those circumstances should be seen in that context.”
Meanwhile, anti-Modi sentiment has beefed up as polls opened on Monday and the international media has spotlighted India’s elections. The Economist ran a cover story stating it would not endorse Modi to be India’s prime minister — which many observers have interpreted as an endorsement, by default, for the National Congress Party. BJP leader Arun Jaitley tweeted in response:
Thankfully, ‘The Economist’ does not vote. Indians do.
— Arun Jaitley (@arunjaitley) April 4, 2014
The New York Times also released a short video (featured below) featuring Celia W. Dugger, co-chief of the Times’ South Asia bureau during the 2002 Gujurat riots. She said she felt “chilled” after interviewing Modi a couple of months after the riots. “He told me his greatest regret was that he didn’t manage the media very well,” she said. “He had not shown any regret or expressed any empathy for those who had been slaughtered.”
And how’s the wife reacting to all of this? The Mumbai Mirror reports Jashodaben has left on a pilgrimage to pray for Modi’s success. She still remains very much devoted to him, apparently:
“Thursday (when Modi filed his nomination in Vadodara and wrote Jashodaben’s name in the ‘married to’ column) was the second most happiest day in Jashodaben’s life. The first was the day she got married in 1967,” said Kamleshbhai, the younger of Jashodaben’s two brothers. “My sister is very happy that her husband has formally acknowledged her as his wife.”
This piece was originally published on April 11, 2014, on Link TV’s World News website.