Understanding Modi’s crying in public

Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his farewell speech for Ghulam Nabi Azad in the Rajya Sabha during Budget Session, in New Delhi on 9 February | RSTV/PTI Photo

Narendra Modi is not the first Prime Minister to (attempt) crying in public. Analysts say political crying is almost routine and hardly helps to remain afloat against the tide. The article addresses what the tears of politicians are all about.

Mohammed Abdul Mannan | TwoCircles.net 

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From India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to his present successor Narendra Modi, almost everyone holding this position has cried in public, for one reason or the other. It was an emotional patriotic Hindi song Ae Mere Watan Ke Logo by Lata Mangeshkar that brought tears to Nehru’s eyes in January 1963. NaMo had more than once showed himself up attempting to cry publicly, the last being in May 2021 over the deaths of thousands of people due to the coronavirus pandemic’s second wave for which he got squarely blamed for ill governance and system collapse. He was ridiculed and derided, especially on social media, for hiding his incompetence behind the dramatized televised sob.

According to News Click, choking up may be hard to do but the emotional appeal of it wanes over time. The first recorded instance of Modi publicly crying dates back to January 2004, almost a decade before he became the prime minister. In May 2021, his so-called emotional moment came during the video conference with doctors and frontline health workers in his adopted constituency of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, India’s populous state that has suffered massive deaths due to negligence in handling the Covid-19 pandemic. “He choked up while offering condolences but tears did not roll down from his eyes. These two events are interspersed with at least seven instances of him becoming visibly emotional or teary-eyed or choking up,” it said. Post-Demonetisation – his first major decision that went wrong and broke the otherwise booming economy, he was shown breaking down twice. In April 1999, BJP, the single largest party which formed the coalition government, bowed out when the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) pulled out, causing the government headed by the first BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to collapse. That development prompted him to cry as the nation faced a fresh general election and dramatically returned to power months later.

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. Delhi’s articulate politician Alka Lamba once 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?’” Punjab Chief Minister Capitan Amarinder Singh called him “a self-obsessed man interested only in publicity; all his actions are aimed at that”. 

News Click remarked: He has a masterly display of histrionics—moist eyes and long pauses. What he, like any leader, wants is to not see his popularity dip.” The Print says Modi’s emotional speeches have grabbed eyeballs. There are also enough and more dramatic pauses to punctuate the speech. The pauses were sometimes filled with pin-drop silence and sometimes with moments when he wiped his tears and drank water, presumably to compose himself. And then when apologising for the crying. Crying brings NaMo’s strongman image down a notch or two.

A leading Canadian daily, The Globe and Mail, says tears and politics have a mixed history. “We are wired to have an empathetic response when we see someone cry. But there will always be people who are suspicious of a politician’s tears. Public crying continues to be viewed by many as a loss of control, a sign of fragility. Famous playwright Arthur Miller once observed politicians are no different than actors, it quoted in the article.

Writing in the Indian Express in February 2021famous journalist and political commentator T J S George observed: “Our Prime Minister turns teary-eyed not for reasons lay citizens thought possible. 

Obviously, it is theatrics. Political leaders crying in the open always attract headlines. He (Modi) would have known how tears have influenced history. Winston Churchill famously cried in Parliament, not once but many times until Edward VIII called him a ‘cry baby’. In a report in November 2010, the British broadcaster BBC asked can one trust a leader who cries. Firstly, why do they do it? Most psychologists agree that it is seen as far more acceptable to cry in public than it was several decades ago. Moreover, many politicians believe it will increase their support by making people warm to them, which – at a basic level – it does. Undoubtedly, at the right time and in the right place, tears can soften our hearts and make often distant-looking politicians appear human.

The New York Times in May 2020 remarked “crying on the job, especially in politics, used to be considered a liability. Crying has derailed political careers. Tears at work have long been discouraged: People who cry risk being perceived as less professional and less competent than their more stoic peers. It also depends on what the emotion is about. Religious tears tend to be OK, as do heroic tears (think: war, sports). Patriotic tears are generally welcome, while personal tears are riskier. In a report, The Case for Crying in Public, the British broadcaster BBC remarked in August 2019: “Psychologists have largely found that far from being cathartic, crying often ends up making you feel worse.”

Why we cry?
Crying is in response to an emotional state – of sadness, anger and even happiness. For crying to be described as sobbing, it has to be accompanied by a set of other symptoms like slow but erratic inhalation, occasional instances of breath holding and muscular tremor. Politicians crying over victory and farewell speeches are dime and dozen in history, but they do so owning up responsibility for faults and failures are rare. Call it loss of control, endearing habit, a moment of weakness or performance, leaders at the top have shed tears in public often in times of crisis.

Jodi DeLuca, an American neuropsychologist, says crying has a purely social function. It often wins support from those who watch you cry. Sometimes, crying may be manipulative – a way to get what you want. According to WebMD, a leading source for trustworthy health news and information, it could be that those who are depressed or anxious simply don’t derive the same benefits from crying as others do. If you’re not a world-class time or place where you don’t want to weep — and others don’t want to watch you weep. 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. Leaders are presumed to be contriving when they are perceived to gain from maudlin acts.

In a report in July 2013, ABC Radio National, ask why are humans the only animals that cry? Pet owners often claim their dogs cry. Darwin thought monkeys and elephants wept. But modern scientists believe the only animal to break down in tears is us. Charles Darwin thought that tears had no modern adaptive function. In an article on how political tears became routine, The Guardian in January 2016 remarked: “At one time tears could finish a political career, but now crying is an important tool in the campaign armoury. Public crying is a loss of control but always a brief weakness, a disruption from within. As a result, it has often been considered a serious political error. Today, perhaps because it is better understood, political crying is almost routine.

Thomas Dixon, Director of the Queen Mary Centre for the History of the Emotions, and Editor of the History of Emotions Blog talked about ‘the power of political tears’ and ask are politicians who cry openly ever being sincere? Writing in The Prospect magazine of the UK in October 2015, he says the power of political tears is evident throughout history—as far back as the English Civil War (1642–1651), tears were used to embellish and enhance rhetoric. Oliver Cromwell, who led the rebellion against the monarchy and signed King Charles I’s death warrant, for all his puritanical drive and ruthless leadership, was notorious for his emotional displays. Displays of public emotion were increasingly common in the 18th century. This touchy-feely trend continued into the 20th century.

Julius Caesar, the Roman emperor, is said to have cried when he learnt his conquests were no match to Greek legend Alexander the Great. Adolf Hitler had cried six times, including once at the defeat of his country in the First World War (WWI). He went back to his bunk and buried his head. In April 1945, he committed suicide by swallowing a cyanide capsule and shooting himself in the head after getting holed up in a bunker in Berlin. Soon after, Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allied forces, ending his dreams of a “1,000-year” Reich or kingdom/empire in German. He delivered public speeches with great dramatic flair, often with tears in his eyes.

The two leaders traditionally depicted as the most fearless and tearless of this era, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, also indulged in bouts of political crying. Churchill wept frequently, both in private and in public. The real pioneer of political tears in the 20th century was Margaret Thatcher who had the popular perception of being heartless and ultra-masculine. She spoke to journalists about her tears on several occasions, from her election as Conservative leader in 1975 onwards, including during the Falklands War of 1982. 

In 1985, she became the first Prime Minister to weep during a television interview. The tears were aimed at a female audience and presumably designed to soften Thatcher’s image. At least three US presidents have publicly shed tears while in office, Barack Obama being the last at least five times.

According to The Quint, Indians reacted to Modi’s cries with ‘like’, ‘dislike’ and ‘haha’ on social media. Dislikes outnumbered likes even on Modi’s official YouTube channel.  The political response had been on predictable lines – with his supporters calling it an “outpouring of grief” over people dying due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the Opposition calling it a “drama” or ”crocodile tears”. It does appear that at least on Facebook, the proportion of “haha” responses is higher in English news pages and pages of non-Hindi regional languages, compared to pages of Hindi news channels. On YouTube, the response is overwhelmingly negative towards the PM. This seems a comparatively new phenomenon.

An article in DailyO.in, an online opinion, analysis and blog platform from the India Today Group, asked does the prime minister of a country have the right to cry in public. “Turning emotions into fodder for politics is a sacrilege. Emotions are vehicles of truth. In particular, inner truth, which is the essence of the sacred. Emotions, more than reason, are the sacred hymns of human interiority. Emotions are to be deemed sacrifices offered to the Divine.” It added: “Whatever is cast before human beings is at risk of getting degraded and vulgarised. So, two things are better avoided – a public display of emotions and sitting in judgment insensitively over the emotions of others; for who can know when it is genuine and when it is not. The tragedy today is not that our public life is choked with emotions. It is, rather, that our private and public lives are emotion-starved. We are, as a result, less than human. We lack aliveness.”

Mohammed Abdul Mannan worked as a senior journalist with Deccan Chronicle, Indian Express, India Today and Khaleej Times. He is the founder-editor of Via Dubai and authored 10 books including Behind the Mask – the story behind Covid-19.