Outside a two-room shanty littered with onions, Narendra Modi’s in-laws recalled the look on his wife’s face last month after the frontrunner to be India’s next leader acknowledged her for the first time in decades.
“She was very happy on that day,” Jai Modi, the nephew of Jashoda Modi, Narendra Modi’s bride, said on April 28 outside the family’s soot-streaked home in Gujarat state, adding that she’s not expecting anything if he becomes prime minister. “You can imagine, after 45 years, he finally accepted her.”
Narendra Modi, 63, has long fostered an image as a bachelor who gave up a traditional home life to serve his country, even telling an audience as recently as three months ago that he has no family ties. His mention of a wife last month on a campaign form captured public attention and put a spotlight on a common practice that women’s rights advocates have sought to end.
The ancient custom of childhood engagements followed by arranged marriage poses a challenge to politicians, who risk alienating rural voters should they criticize the practice. Modi has declined to respond publicly to an attack by Rahul Gandhi, the ruling Congress party’s campaign chief, over failing to mention his wife earlier.
“There are people who don’t see it as a backward custom -- and you don’t want to lose that vote,” said Sumit Ganguly, the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University in Bloomington, who has written or edited more than 20 books on South Asia. At the same time, he said, “there is a certain social stigma attached to walking away, particularly to a man walking away from a marriage.”
Almost half of Indian women aged 20 to 24 say they were wedded before age 18, according to the most recent data from the United Nations Population Fund, one of the highest percentages in the world. The organization wants to end the practice, which it says can involve a formal marriage or informal union.
Growing up in rural Gujarat, Narendra and Jashoda were engaged as children in a ceremony arranged by their parents, according to Ashok Modi, one of Jashoda’s two brothers. They married a month before Jashoda’s 17th birthday in a traditional Hindu Vedic ceremony on May 10, 1968, he said, recalling the date from memory.
Jashoda told The Indian Express in an interview earlier this year that the couple stayed in contact for about three years before losing touch. Her family members said she wasn’t available for an interview in a visit to her village last month.
“In three years, we may have been together for all of three months,” she told the newspaper in an article published on Feb. 1, referring to Narendra Modi. “There has been no communication from his end to this day.”
Most polls show Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party winning the largest number of seats in the elections, while falling short of the 272 needed for a majority. Turnout has averaged 66 percent through eight of nine rounds of voting, on pace to surpass the previous record of 64 percent in the 1984 vote, according to the Election Commission of India. The final round will take place on May 12, with all ballots counted on May 16.
Modi has focused his campaign on his record in Gujarat, the state he’s run since 2001, and the biography posted on his party’s website doesn’t mention his wife.
“I have no family ties -- who will I be corrupt for?” Modi told a campaign rally in northern Himachal Pradesh state in February.
In previous elections, Modi had left his marital status blank when filling out registration forms. A court order in September required all election affidavits to be completed in full, putting Modi at risk of having his nomination rejected if he failed to comply.
In a form to run in this election, Modi wrote “Jashodaben” in the row marked “spouse,” adding a suffix often tagged to female names in the state, according to a copy of the document. Details of her income, bank accounts, jewelry and property investments were “not known,” he stated.
His opponents pounced on the disclosure, saying it was evidence that the BJP wouldn’t make good on campaign promises to improve the status of women. In its campaign manifesto, the party pledged to remove gender disparities in property, marital and cohabitation rights, and to take steps to stem female foeticide, child marriage and rape.
“We don’t know how many elections he has fought, but it’s the first time he has written that he is married -- the first time,” Gandhi, Modi’s biggest rival for prime minister, said at an April 11 rally in Jammu and Kashmir state. “They talk about women’s honor, but his wife’s name never found its way into the affidavit.”
‘Let People Judge’
BJP spokeswoman Nirmala Sitharaman called the attacks “laughable,” saying that Modi wasn’t trying to hide anything in previous election affidavits and that he didn’t mention the marriage to protect his wife’s privacy. Modi never accepted the child marriage and didn’t spend a day with his wife, she said.
“In Indian family and society, these things are assumed null and void societally, though not legally,” Sitharaman said. “It’s never thought of as an issue.”
Modi shrugged off the criticism from opponents over his marital status in a televised interview last month.
“Why should I think so much about the criticism?” he told ABP News, according to a transcript of his remarks posted on its website. “Let people judge.”
Prahalad Modi, Narendra’s younger brother, said he left his wife in the village to join the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist group whose full-time volunteers are expected to be celibate and unmarried. Narendra was an RSS campaigner in his 20s and 30s until he joined the BJP.
‘Not One Rupee’
“Buddha left his wife too,” Prahalad said in an interview at his shop along an Ahmedabad highway, where he sells truck and car tires. “Narendrabhai never wanted to have a family,” Prahalad said, using an honorific for his brother. “His thinking was totally different. He wanted to give himself to the nation. He left Jashodaben for the country.”
All of Narendra’s four brothers were married at a young age, Prahalad said, adding that Jashoda still stopped by the house of Narendra’s family even after he left town. Prahalad dismissed criticism that Narendra didn’t support her, saying he was focused on the country.
“Narendrabhai has never helped anyone in the family financially,” Prahalad said. “None of us. Not one rupee.”
Jashoda retired several years ago from her job as a school teacher and lives on a pension of 14,000 rupees ($233) a month, according to Ashok, her brother. She has no home of her own and splits time between the deteriorating hovels of her two brothers, one a factory worker who also trades onions and the other a shop owner who sells chewing tobacco and potato chips.
Jashoda accepts the fact that Narendra wed her because of his father’s wishes, according to Daksha Modi, the wife of Jashoda’s nephew. Even though Jashoda’s dad was a teacher and Narendra’s father ran a tea stall, the marriage was arranged because the children were from the same community, she said.
“Even today, people respect marriage promises made by their parents,” Daksha said as she tended to her one-year-old baby in the house where Jashoda spends some of her time. “When he declared her as his wife, we were all very happy. Moving around in life as a single lady is very difficult to explain.”