BJP leader and likely future prime minister Narendra Modi has based much of his personal appeal on his humble beginnings as the son of a tea seller who carried hot kettles up and down the cars of trains in his native state of Gujarat—in case you didn’t get the message his party opened tea stalls as a campaign stunt and he brought a tea seller with him to file his candidacy—as well as his current ascetic bachelor lifestyle. But both images were complicated a bit this week by his first public admission that he has legally been married since he was 17.
Modi was wed in an arranged marriage to a woman named Jashodaben, then 18, who now goes by the name Jashobaden Chimanlal Modi—they had been betrothed when he was 3—but he abandoned the marriage and his own family just a few weeks later, leaving to travel the country on his own. The two haven’t seen each other since.
The existence of Jashobaden hasn’t exactly been a secret, or even an open secret. Now a retired schoolteacher living on a pension of about $233 a month, she was discovered by reporters in 2002 living in a one-room apartment, and she’s been giving interviews to curious reporters for years. But likely due to advice from his legal advisers, this week saw Modi’s first public acknowledgment that he’s married, when he put her name down as his spouse in his nomination form to run for parliament.
As the Times of India notes, he had “left the column blank in the last four state assembly elections in 2001, 2002, 2007 and 2012.”
Modi has, in the past, used the fact that he doesn't have family dependent on him as evidence of his incorruptibility. The fact that he actually has a wife living in near-poverty doesn't exactly bolster that argument. Interestingly, given Modi’s past as a militant Hindu nationalist and accusations of complicity in violence against Muslims, Jashodaben taught in a predominantly Muslim school.
The acknowledgment may prompt some more scrutiny of Modi’s early years, which seem to have gotten the full George Washington cherry tree treatment from his supporters. (According to one story, as a boy he swam alone through a crocodile-infested lake to reach a submerged temple.)
Jashodaben doesn’t seem bitter and says she supports Modi’s candidacy, but the picture she painted of their brief relationship in an interview with Indian Express isn’t exactly flattering:
Did he ever tell you he was leaving you or quitting the marriage?
He told me once that “I will be travelling across the country and will go as and 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”. The decision to leave was my own and there was never any conflict between us. He never spoke to me about the RSS or about his political leanings. When he told me he would be moving around the country as he wished, I told him I would like to join him. However, 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. So I too stopped going there after a point and I went back to my father’s house.
Still, the revelation seems unlikely to sway the election, which began this week and will continue until May. He has a healthy lead in the polls and if accusations of complicity in an sectarian massacre that resulted in 1,000 deaths didn’t derail his rise to power, the fact that he ran out on a two-week relationship when he was 17 probably won’t. (And of course, Modi won’t be the only world leader whose marital status is a bit ambiguous.)
But assuming Modi wins this month, it will be interesting to see how life changes for the suddenly rediscovered Mrs. Modi.
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