There’s something about the sight of a crying, weeping person in position of power that can be deeply humbling. It can often jolt the senses of the ordinary citizen — if an individual of that stature can have something that moves them so deeply, can such a politician really ever do any wrong? And even if they do, it’s okay — they are after all, evidently, only humans. When a powerful individual breaks down in front of millions, the intention is precisely that: to humanise themselves in the eyes of the public.
Of course, this is the ideal scenario. Only one of the hundred ways it can go, if you are lucky. There are 99 other ways in which, if your cry or sob misses the right note, you could be in for anything from being labelled a ‘fakester’ to rendered a meme template for life.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stood in the Rajya Sabha and delivered a deeply emotional farewell speech for the outgoing Leader of Opposition in the Upper House — Ghulam Nabi Azad. Holding back his tears, Modi recalled the conversations the two leaders shared back when he was the Gujarat chief minister and Azad of Jammu and Kashmir. Modi talked about how during a terror attack in J&K, Azad had offered critical support in evacuating the Gujaratis stuck there.
Modi’s 15-minute long emotional speech for the Congress leader grabbed eyeballs, and it is for this reason that ‘crying politicians’ is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the week.
Dramatic pauses, glass of water in hand, the ‘right’ mix
Modi’s fairly long speech was, of course, not without its fair share of subtle political messaging: ‘My doors are always open for you’, ‘I will need your suggestions’, ‘I will not let you retire’. Modi knew just when to slip in the messages he needed to, whilst continuing to wear the persona of a statesman.
There were also enough and more dramatic pauses to punctuate the speech. The pauses were sometimes filled with pin-drop silence where Modi just looked Azad in the eye, and sometimes with moments when he wiped his tears and drank water, presumably to compose himself. And then when Modi apologised for the crying. “Sorry,” he said, as he cleared the lump in his throat, giving the impression of this being a completely organic, impromptu break down.
Crying brings Modi’s strongman image down a notch or two. Especially because just two weeks ago, someone else’s tears had made primetime news. When western UP farmer leader Rakesh Tikait wept, his tears moved tens of thousands of protesters to the Delhi border.
The first time Modi cried in public was in May 2014, at BJP’s parliamentary meet in the Lok Sabha where he was elected as the leader of the party’s parliamentary board.
Several BJP members sitting in the audience also began weeping on watching their leader cry, on expected lines.
Back then too, Modi had stopped in the middle of his speech, and called for a glass of water. He then drank from that glass, and a few minutes later, went on to use that very glass as a metaphor of sorts: “Some people will call this a glass half full, others will call it a glass half empty. But I am a third type of person: I say the glass is half full with water, and half full with air, I am very optimistic in life.”
And just like that, in a matter of a few seconds, Modi was able to change the sombre mood of the room into a hopeful kind. Masterstroke, some might say.
Then Modi cried thrice during a parliamentary party meeting in 2017, after the BJP won a sixth straight term in Gujarat assembly election.
It was reported that “uttering ‘Gujarat’ brought tears to Modi’s eyes, not once but three times as he recounted his journey from his home state to the PM’s office.”
Each of these times, Modi’s speeches carried three ingredients: nostalgia, pride, and a dollop of optimism.
When crying can easily turn into parody
Not all politicians, however, are able to cry in public with the same conviction.
In October 2019, a video of Samajwadi Party leader Firoz Khan breaking down in front of Mahatma Gandhi’s statue went viral. In the video, Khan isn’t just crying at the sight of the statue, but goes on to have a full-length conversation with it.
“You gave us freedom and abandoned us..you got such a big nation Independence, but all our hopes are fading. You got us Independence..and then left. Bapu, where did you go?” Khan asks.
Even if Khan was actually trying to have a meaningful ‘conversation’ with Gandhi, it, unfortunately, just didn’t land, and ended up seeming like a parody of sorts.
Another instance of a major miss was when senior journalist Ashutosh, who was then with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), broke down in a TV discussion with a deceased farmer’s daughter. He profusely apologised to the daughter, and bawled. A lot.
Before Ashutosh knew it, a screenshot of his crying face went viral on social media with the hashtag #AshuCries. “Where is his Oscar?”, twitteratis asked. The picture is to date used as a meme template.
It is a cruel irony, but it really doesn’t matter if your crying is authentic, you have to go a step ahead and make it seem authentic. This means even if your natural instinct is to bawl like a baby, you remind yourself that you are a public figure, and kill that instinct. The internet is, after all, a mean place.
Loyalty to the boss, lack of ticket — other reasons to cry
Another politician who seemingly loves to shed a tear or two is Tamil Nadu’s former CM O. Panneerselvam. Panneerselvam broke down while taking oath as the CM of Tamil Nadu in 2014, after J. Jayalalithaa was convicted in a corruption case. There wasn’t a single dry eye in that oath-taking ceremony, all of the ministers crying as they remembered ‘Amma’.
He then broke down again, in 2016, hugging PM Modi when he approached the casket containing Jayalalithaa’s body to pay his last respects. Panneerselvam doesn’t just enjoy crying, he also likes to talk about it.
I was crying for almost half an hour hearing abt her situation – CM
— O Panneerselvam (@OfficeOfOPS) February 7, 2017
In a rather cryptic tweet in 2017, presumably about Jayalalithaa, he said: “I was crying for almost half an hour hearing abt her situation.”
Then there’s of course, the opportunistic crying. One could argue all politicians crying in public can be seen as opportunistic, but some of them don’t even try to be subtle about it.
Late Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) chief Ram Vilas Paswan’s son-in-law Anil Kumar Sadhu cried in public over the denial of a ticket by the former, and also hit out at his brother-in-law Chirag Paswan on being a “failure”. Family drama notwithstanding, leaders leaving behind any and all inhibitions to cry for lack of a ticket is not rare.
A video of an RLSP leader throwing a fit and crying dramatically, on not being given a ticket at the party’s meet, had gone viral in 2015.
— ANI (@ANI) September 21, 2015
British comedian and writer Russell Brand, once talking about politicians crying in public, said, “If not done authentically it becomes the ultimate artifice.”
What does it mean when politicians cry?
— Russell Brand (@rustyrockets) December 17, 2020
Brand is right: it’s a tricky terrain, you get too dramatic and the crying can easily seem theatrical, and if you become too subtle, it may just have an underwhelming impact.
When women cry
How many times are women described as ‘hysterical’, ‘overdramatic’, ‘emotional’, regardless of their job profile? Now imagine being a woman in public office, and then having a breakdown.
Powerful men breaking down can and is often hailed as a moment of vulnerability, realness and humanity. But the same translates into a sign of weakness when it comes to women in power.
Hillary Clinton, in an interview to social media page Humans Of New York, once said, “I know that I can be perceived as aloof or cold or unemotional. But I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions. And that’s a hard path to walk. Because you need to protect yourself, you need to keep steady, but at the same time you don’t want to seem ‘walled off’.”
This dilemma between being ‘in control’ but also ‘not too cold’ is a burden put disproportionately on women’s shoulders.
In India, while multiple women politicians have broken down in public, it’s almost always been on ‘women issues’.
For instance, former Delhi CM Sheila Dikshit turned emotional in an interview to a news channel in 2012, after the horrific gangrape and murder. However, then too, Dikshit’s outburst was seen as some sort of an effort at damage control, as the crime saw widespread protests against the Congress government of the time.
Samajwadi Party leader Jaya Bachchan also broke down at a protest organised against the 2012 rape.
A more recent event of a woman politician crying in public was that of AAP leader Atishi breaking down at a press conference where her party accused BJP’s Gautam Gambhir of distributing derogatory, sexist and casteist pamphlets against her.
It’s like even when it comes to showing emotions, women are allowed to be emotional only about things that affect their gender. Anything besides that, you have to prepare yourself to be called unstable and temperamental. Women have to show they are tough by not shedding tears, because the popular social perception is that they are weak and emotional.
Views are personal.