As a candidate in the 2002, 2007 and then the 2012 elections for the Gujarat Assembly, Narendra Modi chose not to make his marital status clear in his nomination papers. Now, having set his sights on becoming the next occupant of 7 Race Course Road, the BJP’s prime ministerial nominee has for the first time acknowledged in his election papers the existence of a wife, Jashodaben Modi, who he appears to have distanced himself from almost half a century ago to become an RSS pracharak. Jashodaben, apparently at Mr. Modi’s urging, continued with her education after they parted. She became a village schoolteacher, but the reality of the social milieu she lived in was such that she had to rely on her brothers to give her a home. By itself, this belated revelation should have been of little consequence, especially as this had already been reported on in the press. In India, unlike in the West, details of a politician’s personal life normally have little impact on the electorate unless they have criminal implications. But what caused consternation in this case was why Mr. Modi should have suppressed for so long the fact that he was married. Further, in a country where women have a robust public presence, keeping his wife hidden away from the public eye, suggested a regressive view on Mr. Modi’s part of a woman’s place in this country.
Indeed, this delayed disclosure of the crucial personal detail dents Mr. Modi’s credibility as a prime ministerial candidate. With the socially conservative RSS driving the BJP’s campaign, there is the apprehension of a resurgence of a patriarchal mindset reflecting restrictive approaches to the issue of further empowerment of women. The Gujarat model that Mr. Modi is assiduously marketing in his bid to become Prime Minister does not inspire much confidence in his ability to promote gender equality. The 2011 census says there are 918 women for every 1,000 men in the State, below the national average of 940, indicating an unacceptable trend of male-preference, lower rates of school enrolment for girls, and higher levels of malnutrition among children than in the rest of India. The State’s conviction rate for rape and abduction of women is also among the lowest in the country. Mr. Modi’s political opponents have naturally seized upon this disquieting impression of a regressive impulse, seeking to make political capital out of it. The onus is on him, given his prime ministerial aspirations, to be more transparent about what prompted this somewhat misogynist reticence in disclosing his marital status. This will put to rest fears that we are about to enter an era of renewed social conservatism, should Mr. Modi become Prime Minister.