At the Facebook townhall, Modi again showed a side of him that is at odds with his tough-as-nails public persona, says Sohini Das.
An emotional Indian Prime Minister indeed grabbed the eyeballs of the Western media.
Sample these headlines: ‘Indian PM gets emotional’ (Sydney Morning Herald); ‘India’s Modi grew emotional at Facebook as he recalls his childhood’ (Fortune); or ‘Modi breaks down in tears discussing mother at Facebook event’ (Time).
What has perhaps caught their fancy is that, known for his ‘tough’ image, Narendra Damodardas Modi’s public persona is hardly equated with tearing up in public.
Or is there an emotional man hiding behind a tough exterior? This is definitely not the first time that Modi has let down his guard during a public meeting. For instance, we saw him fighting back tears at the Parliament days after his party’s sweeping victory at the Lok Sabha elections. He is known to have publicly cried among his party workers at the Bharatiya Janata Party headquarters in Ahmedabad after the 2007 Gujarat Assembly elections.
One of his old colleagues recollects “He has a very mild heart. He can be quite emotional at times.” Especially when it comes to his mother, Hiraba. This 90-something lady who lives with her son Pankaj Modi in a no-frills government quarter in Sector 22 of Gandhinagar is one of the last few links that Modi has with his family.
Attracted to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideology at a tender age of eight (when he had started training at the local RSS shakhas at Vadnagar), Modi became an RSS ‘pracharak’ in 1978. As ‘pracharaks’ (or campaigners) are not expected to stay close to their individual families or even maintain close ties with them, Modi has almost always lived the life of a recluse.
In fact, it was after many years that he returned to visit his ancestral home in one of Vadnagar’s narrow lanes, after he became the chief minister of Gujarat in 2000. Having left home at a very early age, Modi’s formative years were spent roaming the country. He is not known to have maintained close links with his family during all these years. Eventually his family sold the Vadnagar property and moved to Gandhinagar, where Hiraba lives with her son who is a Gujarat government official.
Thereafter, he has visited his mother at least twice a year, once on his birthday, and the other during the Gujarati New Year (immediately following Diwali). These meetings have been highly publicised, capturing huge media attention as the years went by and Modi’s stature in national politics grew. So much so, that the personal meeting between a mother and son became photo-opportunities for the media, who clicked photos of Modi and his mother in the now famous swing in the verandah of his brother’s house.
Having visited the house, one can very well guess why the verandah was the chosen spot. The tiny living room with spartan furniture could hardly have accommodated the TV crews. No one knows if Modi visited his mother in private. He, at least, has chosen the two above mentioned occasions to be a very public one.
“Since he took charge of the Prime Minister’s office, the visits have become rarer now,” reveals a close aide. “He visited her when he was in town during the Vibrant Summit.”
So, has a 65-year old Modi slowly started missing his family at his sprawling 7 Race Course Road residence?
“He can easily move her into a separate bungalow in Delhi if he wants to,” says the aide. “But he won’t, as ‘pracharaks’ choose this hard way of life. Their life revolves around bigger ideals, rising above personal relations.”
In an emotionally charged event at Facebook’s headquarters at Menlo Park, the prime minister struggled to control his emotions after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg asked him about his mother. While he started with his usual elan, he took a long pause to hold back his tears as he spoke about his family’s hardships and the sacrifices that his mother had to make for her children.
His detractors, though, dismiss it as a publicity stunt. “Why would someone who is so close to his mother always choose to meet her in full media glare? Shouldn’t this meeting be private?” asks a political activist in the state.
His colleagues in the BJP, however, choose to defend Modi. “He is forgiving unlike his vindictive image. At times, people with soft hearts put up a tough exterior,” says one of his colleagues.
Whichever version might be true, Modi is known to have his moments of vulnerability. There was definitely nothing unusual with the Menlo Park event.
Image: PM Narendra Modi teared up while talking about his mother during Facebook's Townhall event in California. Photograph: PTI