AHMEDABAD - India's election frontrunner Narendra Modi has acknowledged for the first time that he is married, solving one of the biggest mysteries about the private life of the man tipped to be prime minister.
The 63-year-old is routinely described as a bachelor and is thought to have lived alone in his adult life, having risen through the ranks of a grassroots Hindu nationalist organisation in which celibacy is expected.
Media reports have described how he walked away from a marriage arranged by his parents when he was a child, but this has never been confirmed by the man himself who has portrayed his single status as a virtue while campaigning.
In an affidavit on Wednesday as he filed his papers to stand as a member of parliament from the Vadadora constituency in the western state of Gujarat, he acknowledged that he had a wife.
In the column of the affidavit to mention spouses, Modi - who is chief minister of Gujarat - wrote the name "Jashodaben", but he states elsewhere in the filing that he had "no information" about her. Modi's brother confirmed in a statement that Narendra was betrothed to the now 62-year-old retired schoolteacher, who gave an interview in February in which she said she didn't "feel bad" about not being part of Modi's life.
The marriage, formalised when Modi was 17, is believed never to have been consummated.
"Our parents considered Narendra to be a normal child and under this circumstance got him married at a very young age," his elder brother Somabhai Damodardas said in a statement Thursday. "But for Narendra, service to the nation was foremost so he left home," he added, recalling his parents' modest means to bring up six children and "how there was little education in our family".
Modi, a hardline Hindu nationalist consistently ahead in the polls, told a biographer recently that he "actually enjoys loneliness" and has said that because he has no children he is more likely to be a clean politician. "I've no familial ties. Who would I ever try to benefit through corruption?" he told a recent rally. He has four times contested seats in Gujarat's regional assembly but has never given his marital status on the affidavits.
Political opponents criticised the prime ministerial candidate for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who rarely speaks to the media, for failing to be candid about his personal life.
"I believe that Modi should first seek an apology from the people of Gujarat for misleading them," said Arjun Modhwadia, head of the Congress party in Gujarat. In New Delhi, Congress party spokesman Rashid Alvi queried why he had neither divorced nor cared for his wife. "If a man can't take care of his wife, how can he take care of the country?" he told AFP.
India's mammoth national election, which entered the third of nine phases on Thursday with almost a fifth of the 543 seats in the parliament up for grabs, has been described as a "battle of the bachelors".
Modi's main opponent Rahul Gandhi is single. He is the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that runs the ruling Congress party, which has been in power nationally since 2004. Unlike in many other democracies, being unmarried is not seen as a handicap in India because Hinduism has a strong tradition of asceticism in which followers renounce worldly pleasures.
Other parts of Modi's personal story remain unclear, particularly a period as a young man when he is believed to have wandered in the Himalayas on a journey of spiritual discovery.
Modi's personal life hit headlines last November in a scandal dubbed "Stalkergate" in which alleged transcripts of conversations between Gujarat's then-home minister and policemen were released by an investigative news portal.
In them the minister purportedly orders officers to trail a woman at the behest of "saheb", a Hindi term for boss, ordering them to report every movement of the young architect, particularly if and when she met any male friends.
The BJP dismissed the tapes as a conspiracy to malign Modi by the Congress party, which polls show faces its heaviest ever defeat in the elections.