AHMEDABAD (Reuters) - Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist who is front-runner to become India's next prime minister, has publicly stated for the first time that he is married.
He made the declaration in election papers filed this week, having long avoided questions on his personal life.
Modi has campaigned as the standard bearer of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which polls show will win the biggest chunk of parliamentary seats in the five-week election that started on Monday, but fall short of a majority.
Yet the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat is a solitary figure who has little contact with his family and entered politics through a grassroots Hindu organisation that prizes celibacy. He rarely gives interviews and little is known about his private life.
India's ruling Congress party has repeatedly called for Modi to disclose his marital status, following local reports in recent years that he had an arranged marriage at the age of 17 to a woman whom he soon deserted but never officially divorced. Critics say the episode exposes his poor attitude to women.
In election papers filed on Wednesday to run for a seat in Gujarat's Vadodara constituency, Modi wrote the name "Jashodaben" in a mandatory column regarding his marital status. He had left the column blank on previous occasions, including in the last Gujarat state election in 2012.
"Modi accepts his Marital Status. Can Women of this Country trust a Man who ... deprives his wife of her right?" Congress' general secretary Digvijaya Singh tweeted on Thursday.
Modi wrote "not known" in the affidavit as to further information on his wife, such as the details of her income and assets. In Gujarati, the formal term "ben" is often attached to the end of women's names and "bhai" is used for men.
Jashoda Chiman Modi, now a retired schoolteacher, lives frugally on a monthly pension of 14,000 rupees ($232), according to an interview she gave to the Indian Express newspaper in February. She said Modi left her after three years, during which they spent some three months together, and they parted amicably.
"ONLY A FORMAL RITUAL"
Modi has based his high-octane election campaign on vows to rescue India from its slowest economic growth in a decade and create jobs for its booming young population. He has also told voters that he is not corruptible partly because he has no close family to enrich.
"Narendra was married to Jashodaben Chiman Modi at a very young age by our parents, but it was only a formal ritual as Narendra left the house in those days itself," Modi's older brother Som said in a statement issued by the party's Gujarat wing on Thursday.
Women are an increasingly important voter block in India, making up 48 percent of the electorate this year as compared to 38 percent when such data was first collected in 1957. The poor treatment of women in India has become a political issue after the gang-rape and murder of a student on a bus in Delhi in 2012.
Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that leads Congress, has made vows to support India's minorities and its women central tenets of his election campaign.
In a country that places a huge social value on marriage, neither Gandhi nor Modi have wives with them on the campaign trail. Gandhi is a bachelor who shown little interest in getting married.
(Writing by Shyamantha Asokan; Editing by Douglas Busvine)