Narendra Modi has finally filled in the blanks about his private life and accepted that he has a wife. This acknowledgment comes after the Supreme Court and Election Commission made it mandatory for candidates, since last September, to fill their affidavits in full. So far, Modi had marked his marital status with a short dash.
That eloquent punctuation mark may well have meant that he did not wish to disclose details about his marriage, perhaps because it was, effectively, a short-lived relationship that he entered into when he was a teenager. Now, his political adversaries, most notably Rahul Gandhi, have accused him of lying by omission in his affidavits, and are trying to spin it as a larger breach of faith with the electorate — the Congress has filed a complaint with the EC against Modi. In stooping to these personal attacks, however, the Congress betrays its own diffidence in taking him on politically.
It is clear that Modi and his wife have been separated for nearly half a century, and the details of this marriage are their private business. Modi may have projected a single status to make the claim that he had no familial entanglements, but he can still defend that position, given that Jashodaben and he have made no claims on each other. The Congress errs in attempting to inflate this into a public matter.
In India, political leaders are largely judged by their public roles, not the arrangements of their domestic life, conventional or otherwise. Even if parties occasionally rake up details about political opponents, it has little traction with voters. For instance, sections of the BJP have often spoken loosely about the Gandhi family, but there is no evidence that this persuades voters. On the contrary, a sensible consensus that separates the personal and the political appears to endure in India.
By making an issue of Modi’s wife in the midst of elections, the Congress only draws unflattering attention to its own political predicament. For years, it has seemed ill-equipped to make a vigorous case against Modi for political and administrative missteps, be it on questions of his involvement in and responsibility for the 2002 violence in Gujarat or the alleged skews in his governance model. Now, in working up drama around an entirely private affair, it reveals that it is also running out of ideas.