Will 'abandoned' marriage damage or help Modi's image?

Will 'abandoned' marriage damage or help Modi's image?

At a campaign rally this year, Narendra Modi, leader of the BJP, offered this curious qualification for the post of India's prime minister: He could not possibly be corrupt because he is a bachelor.

“Why would I indulge in corruption? For whom?” reasoned Modi, 63. “There is no one behind me or in front of me,” he continued, using a Hindi phrase that means he has no family. “I surrender this body. I surrender this heart.”

Modi revised his official biography on Wednesday, when he noted on an election registry that he is, in fact, married. In four previous registrations, he has left the question of his marital status blank, but scrutiny over the question steadily mounted as he became the front-runner for the post of prime minister. (In poll affidavit, Narendra Modi says Jashodaben is his wife)

It was his first official acknowledgment of an arranged marriage he abandoned soon after the wedding some 45 years ago, during a period when he was considering becoming a monk or a full-time activist with a Hindu nationalist organisation, which required a vow of celibacy.

Modi and the BJP took pains to keep the marriage quiet for many years, even when reporters managed to interview his wife, a village schoolteacher. He was silent on Thursday, though his oldest brother, Somabhai Damodardas Modi, released a statement saying that the marriage “was left as a formality” and that his brother had left the woman, Jashodaben Chimanlal, because he had chosen a life of service.

“Narendra’s whole life is a life of sacrifice, and we have to accept it; the whole country knows his sacrifice, and the people of the nation know it,” the statement said. “This event of 40 or 50 years back of a poor family in those circumstances should be seen in that context.”

Though leaders of the Congress Party accused Modi of deceiving the public, it was unclear whether news of his marriage - which was apparently not consummated - would damage Modi. Renunciation of family life is a tradition in India's public life, going back to Mohandas K Gandhi, who was married but took a vow of celibacy. Gandhi spoke of his wish to be “God's eunuch,” and a “eunuch for the nation.”

This year's general election offered the unusual spectacle of a faceoff between two men who boasted of being single: Last year, Congress' Rahul Gandhi told supporters that he did not plan to get married because, as he put it, “I will become status-quo-ist, and I will like my children to take my place.”

Hinduism teaches reverence for intense self-control, growing in strength as a man passes through four stages of life - the student, the householder, the hermit and, finally, the wandering ascetic. The two prime-ministerial hopefuls are invoking that tradition “instrumentally,” in part because they sense rising public anger over corruption, said the historian Ramachandra Guha, author of “India After Gandhi.” “It is a religious, cultural tradition, and it is also statecraft, because it means you are not going to loot the public exchequer,” he said.

Modi was 17 when he decided to leave home and abandon his marriage to Chimanlal in favor of a period of wandering in the Himalayas, during which he apparently considered becoming a monk. A new biography of Modi, freshly published and distributed to journalists by the BJP, said the two never cohabitated or consummated their marriage.

“Narendra refused to do something he did not want to do, no matter what the cultural or family pressure,” said the biography, noting that Chimanlal “was not compelled under Indian law to remain contracted to Narendra, and could have asked her parents to find another suitor, or found one herself.”

Sad picture

The journalists who have found Chimanlal have painted a sad picture, though. Early this year, she told The Indian Express that they had spent no more than three months together when he announced that “I will be travelling across the country and will go as and where I please” and that she had not heard from him since.

She said she had no ill will toward Modi, but she had not remarried, because "after this experience, I don't think I want to. My heart is not into it.” She told the newspaper she was living on a monthly pension of Rs 14,000.

Among the first to find Chimanlal was Darshan Desai, then a reporter for The Indian Express, who found Chimanlal living in a one-room apartment with no toilet or bath and a monthly rent of Rs100. Desai said he had to jump into a moving car to escape a village mob angry that he was searching for Chimanlal. He said Modi called him within minutes of his returning home and asked, “What is your agenda?”

In the ensuing years, Modi's status as a bachelor became an essential part of his political biography. Nilanjan Mukhopadyay, author of “Narendra Modi: The Man, the Times,” said his solitary life has positioned Modi as a refreshing alternative after a raft of corruption scandals hit the ruling Congress Party.

“Here is a man who lives a spartan life, who does not even keep his mother with him,” Mukhopadyay said. “It goes to enhance this moral halo around Modi, as a man who does nothing for himself.” Gandhi, Modi’s main rival, belongs to the most famous political clan in India. His early life was shaped by the assassinations of his grandmother and father, who both served as prime minister.

Gandhi often seemed ambivalent about taking his place in the family business, criticising the status quo as if his family did not form its central pillar. Gandhi, 43, has had serious girlfriends, and for years, the question of whether he would marry followed him everywhere, said Aarthi Ramachandran, author of “Decoding Rahul Gandhi.” But speculation has gradually receded, and last year's “status quo-ist” comment seemed to put the matter permanently to rest. She said it could well be what he suggested: a principled stand. “Is he giving something up?” she said. “I don't quite know.”

Public renunciation reinforces the sense that candidates are not ordinary people but superior, more evolved creatures. This is implicit in grandeur of campaign appearances, where candidates step out of helicopters into blizzards of rose petals, to be wreathed in garlands of fresh flowers, as masses of people strain to touch their hand.

Many of India's political heavyweights are single, including the “three ladies” whose loyalties could well determine the shape of the next government: Tamil Nadu’s Jayalalitha Jayaram, who was convulsed with grief at the death of her cinema co-star, M G Ramachandran, and wrested control of his political party from his widow; West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee, who is said to have made a vow not to marry at the deathbed of her adored father, when she was just 9 years old; and Uttar Pradesh's Mayawati, who has never said why she did not marry, but, when confronted, cast it as an advantage.

When a rival suggested that, because she was childless, she could not understand a mother's pain, Mayawati called her critic “a mother of one, while I take care of hundreds and understand the pain of crores” - tens of millions -- “of mothers.”

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