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GlobalPost exclusive: Wildly popular with both foreign executives and Hindu conservatives, BJP candidate Narendra Modi hasn’t spoken to his wife in more than 45 years. Yet she remains devoted to him.
UPDATE: On April 10, 2014, Indian prime minister hopeful Modi admitted for the first time that he is indeed married.
AHMEDABAD, India — For any world-class politician, an articulate, telegenic or otherwise appealing spouse is an obvious asset. Think Carla Bruni, Peng Liyuan or even Hillary Clinton.
But the man who many believe will become India’s prime minister after the May 2014 elections has an unusual relationship with his wife.
They are still married, but decades of silence separate them. They have not spoken in 45 years, her family told GlobalPost.
That’s not to say Jashodaben Modi would describe herself as estranged from her husband, Narendra Modi.
On the contrary, she is highly devoted to the energetic, charismatic politician from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Mrs. Modi rises at 5 a.m. daily and heads to her village temple to pray that her husband and his party win next year’s parliamentary vote.
The 63-year-old retired schoolteacher even attends her husband’s rallies — incognito, in case his political allies or opponents recognize her.
“She goes to his speeches to see him, but she never tells anyone. She doesn’t tell anyone who she is,” her niece, Nirali Modi, a 25-year-old teacher, told GlobalPost. “He doesn’t know. They have not spoken since he left.”
Mrs. Modi’s relatives say her husband left the family at 18 years of age, to further his political career in a Hindu nationalist organization that forbids its key workers to marry.
Modi would have lost his position had he revealed the marriage. He may never have risen to chief minister of Gujarat — a business hub with a population similar in size to France’s. And he may never have become the man the BJP hopes will beat Congress candidate Rahul Gandhi to end a decade of opposition.
A controversial candidate
Even without his rarely talked about secret wife, Mr. Modi is a deeply controversial politician.
Although his followers virtually worship him — one said he adored Modi "like God" — many opponents despise him for his role in anti-Muslim riots in 2002 when more than 1,000 people died.
Modi is the embodiment of upward mobility in a country that remains wedded to its rigid caste system. As a boy, he sold tea on the platform of the railway station in his home town. Since 2001 as Gujarat’s most powerful leader, supporters credit him with boosting the western state’s impressive economic fortunes.
Foreign investors and India’s major conglomerates flock to Gujarat to do business. Tata manufactures cars near the main city of Ahmedabad. A new Ford factory is due to go into production next year.
But unlike many other emerging market politicians who achieve popularity with executives, Modi boasts that his accomplishments have also benefitted average residents. Gujarat has an enviable network of pothole-free roads, and power cuts are a rarity — a huge contrast to the rest of India where some villages go without electricity for days.
Critics say Modi is merely reaping the benefits of previous administrations that planned infrastructure projects long before his rise to power.
Yet although he has firmly established the Modi success story in the minds of Indians, he cannot shake off the horrific events of February and March 2002, which led to the nickname the Butcher of Gujarat.
A train at Godhra station carrying Hindu pilgrims and activists was set on fire, killing 58 people including 15 children.
Muslims were blamed for the attack, and Gujarat erupted in violence. More than 1,000 people died, most of them Muslims killed in revenge by Hindu extremists, who roamed the streets with swords and kerosene cans, chanting Modi’s name, according to Human Rights Watch.
Opponents say Modi failed to act to prevent the massacres. Some former police chiefs have claimed that he told officers to stand by and let the violence run its course — allegations denied by Modi supporters. The United States government canceled his visa in 2005 and has not granted one since.
Modi refuses to answer questions about the riots, even walking out of a TV interview in October 2007 after being asked why he would not say that he regretted the killings.
In July 2013 he caused outrage by comparing the victims’ fate to his sadness at