Jashodaben and her subversiveness

She follows every custom of a Hindu wife, but Jashodaben has shown she is no pushover.

ByVrinda Gopinath
Jashodaben and her subversiveness
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Jashodaben Narendra Modi, the estranged wife of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, seems keen to shrug off the image of being the long-suffering, nervous spouse of the most powerful man in the country.

The 66-year-old retired school teacher may be hesitant and a bit fearful about asserting herself as the Prime Minister’s wife officially, after all the ring of security thrown around her — of six Special Protection Guards — has restrained her from meeting a prying media (none of Modi’s other family members has guards), but Jashodaben has always been assertive and strong-willed whenever challenged — be it by the prime minister himself, or when confronted by barbs and snide remarks that come her way about her marital status.

Last fortnight’s events, which began with Jashodaben attending an Iftar party to her march for peace between India and Pakistan, reveals the PM’s wife prefers empowerment to victimhood.

Two days ago, in a show of sass and spunk, Jashodaben joined a padyatra (march) in Patan, that started from Ahmedabad to end in Banaskantha at the Indo-Pak border, organised by the Socialist Party (India), to promote peace, and to open trade relations between the border towns of Gujarat and Pakistan. It must be a great embarrassment for her husband that the members of the yatra, co-ordinated by Kausar Ali Sayyad, has been fiercely critical of the Modi government’s agrarian policies and its anti-Pakistan rants.

Not surprisingly, Jashodaben’s participation got a bare mention in the mainstream media. Nevertheless, it was a feisty anti-war protester Jashodaben who rallied for peace saying, “Yuddha Nahin, Shaanti Chahiye (not war, we want peace)”, The Wire reported. During her 30-minute participation in the march that was passing through her town, Jashodaben also made a fervent appeal that the violence at the border must stop and that soldiers must not sacrifice their lives unnecessarily. Was it an act of political defiance by Jashodaben or a personal snub to Modi?

This came barely four days after she was purportedly belittled by Anandiben Patel, her husband’s one-time close confidante and successor in Gujarat, and now governor of Madhya Pradesh, about her marital status yet again. Patel reportedly told a gathering that “it is well-known that Narendrabhai was not married”.

A stung Jashodaben rebuked Patel in a video message on her cell phone, stating that despite ample proof of her marital status, including Modi’s declaration in his 2014 election affidavit that he was married and named Jashodaben as his spouse, it was “shocking and unbecoming of a well-educated woman to speak like this of a teacher”. She further added, “Not only this, her conduct has tarnished the image of the PM. He is very respectable for me, he is Ram for me. It’s his insult.”

The Ram analogy also came barely a week after Jashodaben attended the June 13 Iftar party in Ahmedabad, the battleground of the worst communal riots the state has ever witnessed, that too under the leadership of her husband, in 2002. Now, the Sangh and Modi have always refused to attend Iftar parties held during the holy month of Ramzan, once popularly hosted by prime ministers and presidents as an acknowledgement of India’s syncretic culture, saying it was a phony Nehruvian tokenism of secularism, enshrined in the Constitution. This year, the BJP’s nominee, President Ram Nath Kovind did not even host the traditional Iftar party at his residence in Rashtrapati Bhavan, thus saving Modi and his Cabinet colleagues from making excuses to attend the official event.

However, it was a joyous Jashodaben, dressed in a green saree, who gracefully mingled with guests at the Iftar party held in a community centre on Relief Road, Ahmedabad. Photographs show her feeding people the customary dates and fruits, helping them break their day-long fast. It was astonishing, as Jashodaben is rarely seen at social gatherings, that too at a Muslim religious ceremonial day. Could this be a more defiant move by Jashodaben so far?

Funny, but Modi’s wife has always asserted her right of place, despite leading a retired life of fasting and praying, and an unshakeable devotion to her husband, the prime minister. Her joy knew no bounds when Modi finally acknowledged her as his wife (they were married in their teens and Jashodaben was asked to return home, never to see her husband again) in the election affidavit for the parliamentary election of 2014. He had always left the space for spouse’s name blank in his election affidavits for the state elections, he didn’t dare do it this time for fear of his election being countermanded by vigilant national rival leaders.

But it was not long before Jashodaben struck out to assert her identity as Mrs Modi. Though, she has been ecstatic in telling the media persons that she fasts four days a week for her husband’s well-being, doesn’t eat rice as a penance and reserves all her prayers for him, and that the desire to be with him will always be there, she did not think twice before filing an RTI application with her local police station in Mehsana, demanding to know details of her rights as PM’s wife in regards to her personal security. She was unhappy about the security set-up where her six armed guards tailed her in government vehicles whereas she travelled by public transport. 

Then came the passport fiasco, and it was a feisty Jashodaben who took on her husband once again. In November 2015, the PM’s wife had applied for a passport to visit her relatives abroad, but the office soon rejected her application saying it was “incomplete”. According to the Regional Passport Office in Gujarat, Jashodaben did not attach a marriage certificate or a joint affidavit with her spouse in her application, compulsory to get a passport.

But Mrs Modi was not going to take this lying down and in February 2016, she filed an RTI application with the Regional Passport Office in Ahmedabad, demanding to know what supporting papers did her husband provide to get his passport as a married man. Jashodaben asked for all details to be provided to her, including a copy of the prime minister’s passport issued to him when he was the chief minister of Gujarat. However, whether it was to save himself from more embarrassment, in April 2017, PM Modi announced that producing a marriage certificate or divorce papers is no longer mandatory. Women can give the names of either one of her parents to get a passport, he said, while addressing the ladies’ wing of the Indian Merchant Chambers through a video conference.

It has not always been a ride of acrimony and mistrust between the husband and wife. Jashodaben has showered ample praise on Modi’s ill-fated demonetisation exercise in November 2016, saying it will “curb both corruption and black money”. She has also stressed on the PM’s much-touted Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” campaign when in Allahabad, at a mass wedding ceremony, where she urged people to ensure that proper education was being imparted to the girl child. Then in April, 2017, Jashodaben was invited by the Sahu community, on a three-day tour of Bihar during which she talked about girl and women’s empowerment, apart from attending other felicitations. She has also visited Madhya Pradesh and Telangana, when she went with her family last year in April to Hyderabad, hosted by a local BJP councillor, visiting temples, and even garlanding a Babasaheb Ambedkar’s statue on his anniversary.

Jashodaben‘s family is generous with praise when they acknowledge the privileges she gets as prime minister’s wife – when the family was involved in a major car accident early this year in Rajasthan, when Jashodaben escaped with minor injuries, even as one relative died in the accident – they were looked after by the good offices of the local administration, from the district collector, local BJP leaders, even the hospital doctors, who went out of their way to help the family. They could not say whether the PM called up to enquire after the horrific car crash.
And, so, the stoic Jashodaben carries on with her prayers and fasting, and even as she waits for the call from her husband, she continues to proudly wear all the insignia of a married woman, the sindoor, tikka and mangalsutra. As she once fervently said, “In his heart, he definitely has feelings for me.”  But just as she follows every custom of a Hindu wife, Jashodaben has shown she is no pushover.
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