Why did Narendra Modi keep his wife secret for almost 50 years?


Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Narendra Modi speaks during a meeting to announce the party's election manifesto on April 7, 2014 in New Delhi (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Narendra Modi, currently the favorite to be India's next prime minister, had to make an unusual admission on Thursday. The 63-year-old Modi, long famous for being a bachelor without any family, was in fact married.

In fact, he was forced to acknowledge, he gave his vows almost 50 years ago.

The admission came out when Modi filed his nomination for the Vadodara electoral seat, according to the Indian Express. The paper reported that the prime ministerial candidate was forced to declare the assets and liabilities of a spouse under the Representation of the Peoples Act 1951. While Modi acknowledged he had a wife (and reported his own income at Rs. 454,095 or approximately $7,552), he was forced to leave the columns declaring his wife's assets and liabilities blank.

This wife may come as a surprise to some: Modi has repeatedly said that his lack of family makes him an ideal politician. "I am single, who will I be corrupt for?" he told a campaign rally in February. He had previously told his own biographer that he enjoyed "loneliness."

To those who've been following Modi's campaign, however, this isn't so much of a shock. Rumors about Modi's marriage have been around for a long time: As far back as 2009, journalists were trying to interview Jashodaben Chimanlal Modi, a retired school teacher who was said to be Modi's wife. Earlier this year, when it became clear that Modi was likely to be India's next leader, Jashodaben gave an interview to the Indian Express where she said explained that she bore no grudge against her husband for keeping her secret, explaining that it was part of his "destiny."

What explains a secret wife? According to Jashodaben's accounting, she and Modi were married when they were 17 and 18 due to an arrangement between their parents. They were a couple for three years before separating, with Modi reportedly going to travel the Himalayas, and never coming back.

What led Modi away, it seems, was the teachings of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a strict Hindu organization that is reported to require a vow of celibacy. Modi's time with the RSS eventually led to his leadership of India's second largest political party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and his Hindu nationalism is seen as one key aspect of his popularity, though it's also a key sticking point for his opponents, who accuse him of failing to prevent the 2002 massacre of nearly 2,000 Muslims.

Narendra Modi's older brother, Sombhai Modi, has issued a statement acknowledging the marriage but arguing that it was forced on his brother due the traditions of the low Ghanchi caste in Vadnagar and was never consummated.

To Modi's critics, however, his refusal to acknowledge his wife of almost 50 years is a sign of his lack of respect for women. According to various media reports, Jashodaben lives in a one bedroom house and reportedly received a government salary of Rs 14,000 ($233) before she retired. She says she has never remarried after her first experience.

"If a man can't take care of his wife, how can he take care of the country?" Congress Party national spokesman Rashid Alvi reportedly said.

Updated 4/11/2014: A reference to Modi's caste has been added for context, and a reference to Modi and his wife living together for three years has been removed as they may not have been cohabiting for the entirety of that time.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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Adam Taylor | April 9