The first recorded instance of Narendra Modi publicly crying is dated 14 January 2004, a good decade before he became the prime minister. Modi was then the chief minister of Gujarat. The venue where he emoted was the GK Hospital in Bhuj, which had been rebuilt after it collapsed in the 2001 Gujarat earthquake. Before Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee inaugurated the hospital, Modi addressed the audience. Rathin Das, the Hindustan Times correspondent of Gujarat, wrote, “Modi broke down into tears briefly for a minute while recalling how the people of Kutch bore the brunt of the quake…”
The most recent instance of Modi’s emotional moment was during the video conference on 21 May, with doctors and frontline workers in his constituency of Varanasi. He choked up while offering condolences to the families “who lost people” to Covid-19. Unlike in Bhuj, though, tears did not roll down from Modi’s eyes.
These two events are interspersed with at least seven instances of Modi becoming visibly emotional or teary-eyed or choking up, all terms the media uses to describe those moments in which his feelings get the better of him. Modi is, however, not the first leader in the world to publicly shed tears.
Why leaders cry
Winston Churchill would often tear up, whether listening to a speech in praise of him or announcing the death of Queen Mary in 1953. Former American President Bill Clinton was seen laughing at a funeral before he sighted a TV crew and took to wiping his eyes. British Prime Minister Tony Blair “blinked back tears” after the death of Princess Diana. None has cried as devastatingly for his career as Edmund Muskie, who, in 1972, wept because a newspaper had reported his wife to be an alcoholic and racist. His tears shattered his chances of winning the Democratic presidential nomination.
Psychologists say leaders cry because they, like babies, crave attention and nurture and wish to evoke a sympathetic response from their audience. It is not always an artifice, although their tears tend to attenuate the aggression of their critics.
But leaders who become teary too often are often thought to be faking emotions, as became the fate of Blair. “He would begin to do the ‘blinking back the tears’ as a political gesture, and that was when people began to doubt it. It began to look rather contrived,” behavioural expert Judie James told the BBC. Leaders are presumed to be contriving when they are perceived to gain from maudlin acts.
Modi has to be clubbed in the category of frequent criers, averaging as he does one emotional episode a year. An analysis of his weepy moments shows his tear ducts go into overdrive whenever he speaks of his childhood struggles, his mother, his rise to the post of prime minister, and Gujarat and its people.
When Modi cries
After leading the Bharatiya Janata Party to a spectacular victory in the May 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Modi wept after he was chosen as the leader of the parliamentary party. This was in response to BJP leader LK Advani saying Modi had done a favour to the party. Modi said, “…Like India is my mother, BJP is my mother, too… How can a son do a favour to a mother?” He credited the BJP for making a “poor boy” reach where he has.
A year later, in September 2015, the motifs of mother and poverty recurred in Modi’s interaction with Facebook’s founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, in a Town Hall discussion. To Zuckerberg’s query to Modi about his family background, Modi said, “Mother…is older than 90, but does all her own work herself.” It was then his voice began to crack up. He continued, with pauses and sniffles, that she washed utensils at the homes of their neighbours to raise him.
That was indeed a touching, memorable moment. Except that The Washington Post quoted Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, the author of the book Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times, saying that “he has never found any evidence to support the claim that Modi’s mother was a domestic worker.”
In August 2016, Modi “fought back tears” during a speech he made at the death of Pramukh Swami, spiritual guru and head of the Bochasanwani Akshar Swaminarayan Santha. Modi turning emotional was understandable—he and Pramukh Swami were said to be very close.
Yet the theme of poverty surfaced in his condolence speech. Modi said Pramukh Swami had wanted him to attend the ceremony to lay the foundation stone for the Akshardham temple in Delhi. The Indian Express quoted Modi saying, “Pramukh Swami sent one of his saints to him with some money to be offered during the ritual ‘with a confidence that I would not have anything in my pocket.’”
Two months later, in November 2016, the Prime Minister “choked with emotion” in Goa, where he requested the nation to endure the hardships spawned by his demonetisation policy. His plea was personalised, garnished with descriptions about the sacrifices he made in his youthful days. Modi said, “I am not here for the kursi (high office), I left my home, family, everything for the country.”
Modi asked his “brothers and sisters” to give him 50 days for ending the chaos his demonetisation policy had caused. They should because he knew “what kind of powers” he had taken on. “I am aware they will not let me live,” Modi said, grabbing media headlines instantaneously.
Modi’s next annual ritual of turning emotional occurred in December 2017. After leading the BJP to a hard-fought victory in the Gujarat Assembly election, he delivered a speech to his party’s MPs. ThePrint website reported Modi “breaking down three times as he recounted his journey from his home state to the PM’s Office.” He also pointed out to his listeners that none of his predecessors in the PMO had notched as many electoral victories as he had in three years.
In 2018, Modi’s emotional moment was at the inauguration of the National Police Memorial in Delhi, where he choked up while describing the services and martyrdom of police personnel. In his speech, however, Modi also wondered why such a memorial had not been built over the last 70 years before he came to power.
Modi’s part-sentimental, part-combative speech was perhaps why Aam Aadmi Party MLA Alka Lamba tweeted, “Earlier, people used to say, ‘Why do you cry like a woman every time?’ Now, people say, ‘Why do you cry like Modi every time?’” Lamba triggered a social media storm.
When the nation weeps
In 2019, Modi scaled new peaks of glory and popularity. He won the 2019 Lok Sabha election, locked up Kashmiris in their homes after his government read down Article 370, and then had Muslims and liberal Hindus coming out to the streets, in dismay and fear, at the enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Act. In March 2020, he ordered a national lockdown on four hours of notice, goading a crore of horrified migrant labour to rush home, at times on foot. Anti-CAA activists were dumped into jail, as were intellectuals Anand Teltumbde, Gautam Navlakha and Fr Stan Swamy for their alleged role in the 2018 Bhima-Koregaon violence. Months later, the Modi government passed three new farm laws, much to the horror and anger of farmers.
A large segment of the nation was crying.
Nobody saw Modi become teary.
Modi’s next emotional moment came in an extraordinary circumstance—during his speech bidding farewell to Ghulam Nabi Azad, whose tenure in the Rajya Sabha expired in February 2021. Modi’s was a masterly display of histrionics—moist eyes, long pauses, at one time to sip water. But what moved him was his recollection of that day in 2006 when Azad as Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister called to personally inform him about the terrorist attack on, yes, Gujarati tourists in 2006. Some analysts interpreted his moment of weakness as proof that he did not detest all Opposition leaders.
Until 21 May, the only time Modi had not cried either over his childhood or political struggles or Gujarat was during the speech at the National Police Memorial. To this exception was added the video conference with Varanasi’s medical personnel. Modi has seemingly started to hurt because the nation has been hurting because of the Central government’s gross mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Yet, his choking up during his talk with Varanasi’s citizens did not get a splash even in newspapers partial to the BJP. Perhaps newspapers have realised what behavioural expert Judi James says invariably happens with the audience of leaders who cry—their intellectual side slowly kicks in. They turn cynical at the melodrama of leaders, particularly those who are perceived to “want something.”
What Modi, like any leader, wants is to not see his popularity dip. This brief history of Modi’s crying shows his tears are mostly about himself, for himself.
The author is a freelance journalist based in Delhi. The views are personal.