The secret wife of Narendra Modi - and what she tells us about the man who might become India's next PM

Political opponents seize on Modi’s revelation that he hasn’t seen his wife in decades

Delhi

He was aged 17, she a few months younger. Neither of them apparently had very much to say in the matter. The wedding was never consummated, but neither was it officially annulled.

This week, the issue of the Narendra Modi's estranged wife and their arranged marriage 45 long years ago found itself front and centre in India's increasingly bitter election campaign after the presumed frontrunner confirmed for the first time that he still considered himself to be wed.

It has long been rumoured that Mr Modi, 63, the prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had been briefly married when he was a teenager in Gujarat. The woman to whom he was wed, Jashoda Chiman Modi, even gave an interview to a local newspaper in which she said although Mr Modi had effectively abandoned her, she considered herself his wife.

Yet Mr Modi, who seldom takes any questions from the media, let alone ones about his private life, had always refused to comment on the matter. When he successfully contested four successive elections to become chief minister of Gujarat, he had always left blank the column on documents that asked about his marital status.

On Wednesday, when Mr Modi filed nomination papers for the seat of Vadodara, one of two constituencies he is contesting, he entered the name Jashoda in the column that asked about his family. He was unable to provide her address.

Having long presented himself as a single man and boasted of his bachelor status as something that had ensured he had kept away from corruption or nepotism, Mr Modi's confirmation that he was indeed married was seized on by his opponents.

On Friday, Rahul Gandhi, 43, who is heading the campaign of the ruling Congress party, took up the matter when he claimed Mr Modi had not told the nation the truth.

Speaking at a rally in Kashmir, Mr Gandhi, who is unmarried and says he will wed when he "finds the right girl", said: "In Delhi they talk about empowering women. I don't know how many elections the Gujarat chief minister has contested, but for the first time he has, in his election affidavit, acknowledged his wife."

Meanwhile, the Congress government's law minister, Kapil Sibal, said the party had filed a complaint to the Election Commission. He claimed the BJP candidate should be prosecuted for filing "false affidavits" that concealed he was married.

In Gujarat, Mr Modi's supporters have long thrown a protective ring around the woman he married at a time when he was thinking of becoming a Hindu monk. Mr Modi eventually joined a conservative religious organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which promotes celibacy for its senior leaders, and he has apparently not seen his wife for decades.

But in an interview earlier this year with Indian Express newspaper, Jashoda Modi, 62, claimed she still considered herself to be his wife and harboured no grudges against him. She said she lived on a teacher's modest monthly pension of R14,000 (£138).

Narendra Modi's critic Rahul Gandhi (pictured), of the ruling Congress party Narendra Modi's critic Rahul Gandhi (pictured), of the ruling Congress party (EPA)
"I have never gone to meet him and we have never been in touch. I don't think he will ever call me," she said. "In whatever I say, I do not want it to harm him. I just wish that he progresses in whatever he does. I know he will become prime minister one day."

Mr Modi has not spoken any further about his revelation. But in a statement, his brother, Som, said the marriage had been arranged by the family and claimed they were the victims of tradition and poverty.

"For Narendra, serving the nation was his only religion. He soon left home, leaving all material and marital pleasures behind," he said. "Today, 45-50 years later he remains as detached from his family as he was then."

While some commentators claimed the incident proved Mr Modi could not be trusted and had little empathy for women, his supporters claimed his actions showed the sort of dedication and single-mindedness that could help the nation.

It was reported on Friday that there was no sign of Mrs Modi at her village, Unjha, in Gujarat. It was claimed she was taking part in a pilgrimage with 40 other women, though other reports suggested she was being hidden by family members. It was also said Mrs Modi had stopped eating rice in an act of fasting she hoped would ensure her husband's success.

Yet at the end of the first week of a five-week voting process to select a new government, it seems unclear whether the revelation about Mr Modi's secret wife will dent his current status as the man many believe will be India's next prime minister.

A straw poll in the north of Delhi, which yesterday want to the ballot in the third of nine phases of voting, suggested it would not change the way people felt.

Sukhiram, a 49-year-old rickshaw driver who voted for Mr Modi, said he believed he would help bring development to India. Asked about the revelations over his wife, he said: "There are so many ministers who engage in all sorts of activities, but that doesn't stop them from winning seats. Why should somebody's personal matters effect the election?"

Another man, Surinder Pandey, who works in a roadside eatery and who was also a supporter of Mr Modi, said he had heard he heard the claims but was not inclined to believe them. "It's all planted. Other parties want to defame him," he said. "All their other plans have failed, so they have come up with this."

Meanwhile, Aakriti Gulati, a 19-year-old student, said she had voted for the grass-roots Common Man Party, which has been targeting corruption. She said she had been half ready to believe Mr Modi had a secret wife.

"Rumours definitely can change one's perception of these candidates. But then there are people who are stubborn supporters of a party," she said. "I think [educated] people will understand that wife or no-wife, Modi shouldn't be the Prime Minister."

Additional reporting: Anagha Kinjavadekar in Delhi

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