Narendra Modi, the next likely Prime Minister of India, is well known for many things: he is a devout Hindu, a fervent nationalist, a vegetarian, a hard-core conservative, the leader of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a hawk on Pakistan, and proud of the economic prosperity he has brought to his native state of Gujarat under his 13-year stewardship as chief minister. He is also widely assailed in India and elsewhere for his apparent (and disputed) role in facilitating the deadly communal riots in 2002 in Gujarat which killed at least 1,200 people, mostly Muslims. However, there are some questions and mysteries surrounding this man who may, within eight weeks, become one of the most powerful people on earth. For one thing, his wife, and his bizarre relationship with her.
The Global Post reported late last year that Modi is indeed married, but has not spoken to his wife in more than 45 years and that he essentially abandoned her decades ago. But Jashodaben Modi, who wedded her husband when both were teenagers in an arranged marriage, said she remains devoted to him. The 63-year-old retired schoolteacher attends her husband's rallies and prays for his electoral triumphs. “She [Jashodaben] goes to his [Modi’s] speeches to see him, but she never tells anyone. She doesn’t tell anyone who she is,” her niece, Nirali Modi, a 25-year-old teacher, told GlobalPost. “He doesn’t know. They have not spoken since he left... She is a very religious woman. She likes simplicity and modesty.”
FirstPost said her entire name is Jashodaben Chimanlal Modi, although she only goes by her first name. According to Jashodaben's relatives, Modi left her when they were both 18 years old in the late 1960s so that he could pursue his political career. Reportedly, Modi refused to consummate his marriage and angrily left his native village of Vadnagar after an argument with his in-laws. He soon joined a right-wing Hindu organization called Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a predecessor of the BJP, and began a long odyssey that could soon take him to the pinnacle of India's treacherous political mountain.
GlobalPost noted that the RSS forbade its top members from marrying, lest the duties and responsibilities of matrimony interfere with their political goals (although this assertion has been vociferously denied by RSS/BJP supporters). Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, who wrote a biography of Narendra Modi, explained to the Global Post that as a young political activist, Modi was a propagandist “who lived and worked for the RSS full time. If he had admitted the marriage, he would have lost his position.” Consequently, after their 'separation,' Jashodaben devoted herself to teaching in a small village, Rajosana in Banaskantha district, and retired in 2010, having never re-married.
But Modi has long denied that he even had a wife; and his supporters assert that since he never consummated the marriage, then technically he is “unmarried” and “single.” For her part, Jashodaben has largely shunned publicity and prizes her privacy. She reportedly receives a monthly government teacher's pension of 14,000 rupees ($229) and lives with her brother and spends her days in prayer. “We have had lots of people come here, even [Congress party figure] Rahul Gandhi’s personal adviser, but she [Jashodaben] doesn’t want to talk to any of them,” added her niece, Nirali.
In 2002, following the Gujarat riots, an Indian journalist named Darshan Desai went to meet with Jashodaben in her village, prompting Modi to threaten him. Agence France Presse reported that Jashodaben refused to give an interview to a magazine, The Open that had tracked her down in 2009, only citing that she feared her "powerful" husband.
Modi has long promoted the idea that he is a “single man” and that his lack of family ties makes him a more effective politician. Another biography of Modi, written by Kingshuk Nag and entitled “The NaMo Story” ('NaMo' serving as a popular nickname for Modi) quoted his subject as bragging: “I am an honest man, vote for me. I cannot be dishonest. I don’t have [a] family to look after.” Nag stated that people in India believe politicians become corrupt because “they are under pressure from their wife or their mother or their brother or sister,” something that Modi often alludes to in his public speeches.
However, unlike in the west, Nag added, a prominent Hindu male politician without a wife and/or family does not raise suspicions among the Indian public. Indeed, among his supporters, Modi is hugely popular and even treated as something like a demigod. “He is trying to create this image as a sort of superman,” Nag said. “He wants people to think of him as the Kalki [an incarnation of Hindu god Vishnu] avatar, and he will deliver the country from the Italian lady,” referring to Sonia Gandhi, the leader of Congress and mother of likely rival, Rahul. In addition, Modi's “single” status apparently makes him extremely attractive to many Indian women, who are among his most fanatical supporters. Bollywood film actress Mallika Sherawat has even praised Modi as “the perfect bachelor.”
In February 2014, the Indian Express newspaper finally scored a rare interview with Jashodaben in which she declared she did not feel bad by her husband's abandonment. "We have never been in touch," she said. "I know he will become PM one day. I know he is doing so due to destiny and bad times [in India].” Jashodaben (who refused to be photographed for the story) also claimed that she had quit her studies once she went to his house after their wedding, but that he encouraged to pursue her education. In that interview, she claimed they married at 17, not 18, and that they never divorced. “He told me once that ‘I will be travelling across the country and will go… where I please; what will you do following me?’ When I came to Vadnagar to live with his family, he told me ‘why did you come to your in-laws’ house when you are still so young, you must instead focus on pursuing your studies,” Jashodaben said. “On many occasions when I went to my in-laws’ place, he would not be present and he stopped coming there. He used to spend a lot of time in RSS shakhas [theological schools]. So I too stopped going there after a point.”
Referring to Modi's refusal to acknowledge her existence, she stated: “In such situations, he has to say such things and also has to lie.” She also denied that there was any venom in their break-up, insisting that they "parted on good terms ... there were never any fights. In three years, we may have been together for all of three months." Jashodaben also lamented: "There has been no communication from his end to this day. I don't think he will ever call me."
Modi's peculiar marital (or bachelor) status has not gone unnoticed by his enemies in Congress. Press Trust of India reported that Digvijay Singh, a senior Congress leader and general-secretary, attacked the BJP chief. "I want to ask [Modi] if there is slightest respect for women in his heart, why does he leave blank the column where his wife's name should be written in the election form,” Singh sneered. “Why Gujarat's 'who's who' does not mention his wife's name? Why does not Modi say so if he is not married or he has left her? Poor Jashodaben lives in a rented accommodation. Why does not he get a bungalow for her and provide her the facilities, when he has become such a big man? How [can] somebody, who cannot respect and take care of his wife, will look after the nation?” Another Congress figure alleged that Jashodaben left her husband, not the other way around. "Modi has always been anti-feminist. His wife left him because he failed to respect her," said MP Renuka Chowdhary.
But there is much confusion and contradiction over Modi's attitudes towards his estranged wife. Last April, Daily Bhaskar reported that Modi and Jashodaben met in the chief minister's official residence in Gujarat, although there was no official confirmation from either Modi's office or the BJP.
Moreover, if Modi wins the Prime Ministry, he would not be the first Indian leader without a spouse. Sumit Ganguly, professor of political science and director of the Center for American and Global Security at the Indiana University School of Global and International Studies in Bloomington, noted that Atal Bihari Vajpayee, another BJP figure who served as PM from 1998-2004, never married and it was never an issue for him.