Charisma Through Communication: Comparing Modi's Media Strategy to Nehru and Indira

This paper looks at how Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi used traditional media–radio and print–and their communication styles. It then goes on to examine Narendra Modi’s use of media and his ways of communication, drawing comparisons with the Congress when it was dominant. The paper concludes by arguing that though there are certain continuities in the use of mass media in the two eras, the changes are equally significant.


It is well known that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra  Modi have used the media, particularly social media, to good effect both during elections as well in normal times (Sen 2019; Sen et al 2019). The 2019 Indian general election saw the widespread and innovative use of digital media and technology and was dubbed by many as the “WhatsApp” election (Bengani 2019). The BJP reportedly had three WhatsApp groups for each of India’s over 90,000 polling booths and 1.2 million social media volunteers, besides using Twitter, Facebook and an array of other digital media tools. The increased use of digital media by the BJP and other political parties was matched by a corresponding increase in the number of Internet users in India, a steady growth of cellphone subscribers and the cheap cost of mobile data. 

Rajni Kothari in his seminal essay on the “Congress system” or its re-evaluation makes no mention of the media (Kothari 1964, 1974). What do we know of the use of media in the heydays of the Congress system—under Jawaharlal Nehru and the first two terms of Indira Gandhi? This paper looks at how Nehru and Indira Gandhi used traditional media—radio and print—and their communication styles. It then goes on to examine Modi’s use of media and his ways of communication, drawing comparisons with the Congress when it was dominant. The paper concludes by arguing that though there are certain continuities in the use of mass media in the two eras, the changes are equally significant.

Nehru and Indira Gandhi’s Use of Media

Nehru was a great believer in using the radio as a means of communicating with the people. His speech after M K Gandhi’s assassination is well known. But it was not just on momentous occasions that Nehru used the radio. Even as the Constituent Assembly deliberations were winding down, in June 1949, Nehru in a radio broadcast on the food situation declared

 “I feel that I have been very remiss during the past many months, absorbed as I was in my normal work. I have not been able to give much time to speaking to you either through the radio or in public meetings. I feel that I ought to make good this omission in so far as I can… I hope… to speak to you much more often than I have done in the past” (Times of India 1949a).

While Nehru was not entirely able to make “good his omission,” he did again address the nation in a radio broadcast on 3 December 1949, a few weeks before India would formally be proclaimed a republic. He once again reiterated that he wanted to “keep in touch with the people, if not in person at least through the radio”  (Times of India 1949b). Indeed, political scientist W H Morris-Jones had noted that Nehru “rules a country of continental size and bewildering diversities with a microphone” (Malhotra 2014).

Nehru would periodically keep addressing the nation on radio, especially during moments of national crisis. For instance, within days of the Chinese invasion in 1962, Nehru said in a radio broadcast

“I am speaking to you on the radio after a long interval. I feel, however, that I must speak to you about the grave situation that has arisen on our frontiers…” (National Herald 2020).

Lal Bahadur Shastri too did the same during his brief tenure as prime minister. Ramachandra Guha recounts how during the language agitation in Tamil Nadu in 1965, Shastri acknowledged his mistake in imposing Hindi in a radio broadcast on 11 February 1965 (Guha 2020). It might be noted that in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the penetration of daily newspapers was low, and in 1981 stood at 22 per 1,000 people (Jeffrey 2015: 31).  

Another less remembered and less appreciated medium to transmit the government’s views were the documentaries and news reels made by the Films Division of India, a unit under the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry. Many Indians of a certain age will recall having watched these films, which were compulsory viewing at cinema halls from the 1950s. Under Nehru, the films attempted to instill belief in the “virtues of Nehruvian developmentalism” and creation of ideal citizens (Sutoris 2016: 210).

Indira Gandhi well understood the power of radio and television. Indeed, as minister for information and broadcasting in 1964 she said the press, radio and television in future should be used to “educate” the public rather than “mere propaganda” (Times of India 1964). Indira Gandhi would of course turn this dictum on its head during the emergency. Ironically, it was a committee set up by Indira Gandhi as I&B minister–the Chanda Committee–that concluded that All India Radio (AIR) had become a “purveyor of stale news” and a “psychological transformation” was necessary (Jeffrey 2006: 215-16).

Indira Gandhi was also aware of the power of communicating complex ideas through catchy slogans. Her “Garibi Hatao” slogan struck a chord with voters in the 1971 election and was one of the key factors in securing a “landslide victory” for the Congress (Hasan 2019). Indira Gandhi was also fastidious about her speeches. Prithvi Nath Dhar, one of her close advisors, recalls that the “longest and most tedious meetings with Indira Gandhi had to do with the preparation of her speeches” and that she took great pains “regardless of the importance of the occasion or the subject matter she had to deal with” (Dhar 2000: 120). In fact, the famous midnight speech of December 3, 1971 on AIR, when Indira Gandhi declared war on Pakistan, had to be delayed by an hour since she was not happy with it (Dhar 2000: 122).

However, Indira Gandhi is today much better remembered for muzzling the press and using it for propaganda during the Emergency from 1975-77. Accounts of Indira Gandhi’s handling of the media during the emergency are well known, but some aspects are worth reiterating. While some newspapers resisted for a while and others ceased publication, eventually most complied with the government, publishing “official press releases, statements, and speeches by Indira Gandhi and her minions” (Prakash 2019: 183). Almost as soon as Emergency was imposed, the government merged four news agencies–UNI, PTI, Hindustan Samachar and Samachar Bharati —into one entity, Samachar, and placed it under the supervision of a police officer (Kapoor 2015: 66). B D Garga notes that AIR, Doordarshan and Films Division became “propaganda instruments of the ruling party and peddlers of a personality cult” (Garga 2007: 186). The mild Inder Kumar Gujral, a future prime minister, was also replaced by the compliant Vidya Charan Shukla as I&B minister. Under Shukla, All India Radio came to be mockingly known as All Indira Radio. According to the Shah Commission Report, between January 1, 1976 and January 18, 1977 the AIR news bulletins carried 192 items on Indira Gandhi’s son, Sanjay Gandhi, alone (Kapoor 2015: 66). A four-hour long documentary, Indus Valley to Indira Gandhi, was also commissioned for the princely sum of Rs 11.9 lakh (Garga 2007: 186).

Indira Gandhi was brazen about the censorship stating in a speech in the Rajya Sabha on January 8, 1976: “It is obvious that the opposition movement was not merely getting publicity, but was actually built up by our press; and it is because we denied the opposition the benefit of this, their special type of publicity, that the emergency has succeeded. In a battle the antagonists’ lines of supply have to be cut off, and this is what censorship has done” (Kapoor 2015: 63). In February 1976, the government also enacted the Prevention of Publication of Objectionable Matter Act against the printing of incitement of crime and other objectionable matters (Prakash 2019: 182).

In tandem with press censorship, the government plastered the country with slogans to publicise the government’s Twenty Point Programme. Indira Gandhi was also not averse to using Nehru’s name to legitimise the Emergency. One of the memorable Emergency-era posters was that of Nehru in cricketing flannels and a bat with the caption saying: “The Skipper of Modern India.” Ramachandra Guha notes, “The Indian love of cricket and the public admiration of the (always democratic) Nehru were being invoked to help promote loyalty to his non-cricket playing and authoritarian daughter” (Guha 2002). 

Some of the government’s propaganda measures though fell flat. A triptych by eminent artist M F Husain lauding the Emergency and Indira Gandhi was exhibited in Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta and outside India. However, the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi refused to house the paintings permanently and subsequently they went out of circulation due to their association with the Emergency (Prakash 2019: 184). Another proposal to get the playback singer Kishore Kumar to compose and sing songs praising the Twenty Point Programme backfired, with the singer refusing to comply. Though the I&B Ministry banned his songs on AIR and Doordarshan, it was unsuccessful in getting the gramophone companies to withdraw his records. The ministry’s extreme reaction also became the “talk of the town” (Kapoor 2015: 70) and an object of ridicule. Yet another botched ploy was to screen the popular Bollywood film Bobby on Doordarshan in 1977 to prevent people from going to an opposition rally.

Modi and Media

Though the Modi regime’s use of social media has been well publicised and analysed, the BJP’s use of traditional media and Modi’s communication style is somewhat less noted. One of the critical elements of the BJP’s communication strategies is how much it revolves around Modi. This partly flows from Modi’s presidential style of politics. In this, there are certain parallels with Indira Gandhi who was the last presidential prime minister that India has had. Like the 2014 and 2019 elections, which revolved around Modi, the 1971 national election was turned into a “referendum on Indira’s leadership.” When the Newsweek magazine had asked Indira Gandhi about the primary issue in the election, her reply was, “I am the issue” (Malhotra 1989: 128).

Modi regularly addresses the nation on AIR in a programme known as ‘Mann Ki Baat’ (MKB). Just as Nehru saw his radio addresses as a way of conveying his and the government’s position on various issues, including the food crisis in 1949 or 1962 and border war with China, Modi’s intention is to reach out and connect with voters, especially those outside the metropolitan areas. One of the innovations of MKB is that it is also telecast on Doordarshan with an image of Modi accompanied by visuals.1 A compilation of the first 50 episodes of MKB has also been released in March 2019 as a book titled Mann Ki Baat–A Social Revolution on Radio (Press Information Bureau 2019).

MKB is a good example of how Modi has used traditional media to reach out to a large number of people while avoiding conventional politicking (Figure 1). An analysis of 48 broadcasts from 2014-18 reveals that he used it primarily to publicise the government’s various initiatives (Tewari 2018). Another analysis of the nine MKB broadcasts from 2019 shows that Modi mentioned “India'' 220 times and “nation” 94 times, followed by “water,” “young/youth,” “clean” and “women (Chatterji 2019). However, he did not mention the BJP or any other political party by name at all (Tewari 2018). Indeed, in the very first MKB, broadcast on October 3, 2014 Modi focused on the Swachh Bharat or Clean India initiative, which had been announced a day earlier on M K Gandhi’s birth anniversary. Modi referred to Swachh Bharat in subsequent episodes, while publicising other government initiatives like Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao and Jan Dhan Yojana. Modi has thus used the radio broadcast to amplify his big bang programmes, the latest being the Atmanirbhar Bharat campaign.2 Modi has also used MKB to clarify some of his government’s more controversial policy decisions, such as demonetisation and the goods and services tax. Indeed, it was in one of his MKBs, on August 31, 2015 that he announced that he would let the ordinance to amend the 2013 land acquisition lapse (Sharma 2020). In the most recent edition of the programme on November 29, 2020, which occurred in the midst of an agitation against new farm laws, Modi addressed the concerns of farmers (Times of India 2020).

Figure 1

Source: All India Radio

Much of MKB has also been self-referential and aimed at making a personal connection with citizens. For instance, when speaking about the government’s amendment to the land acquisition law in March 2015, Modi said, “I have heard the rumours being spread, that the Modi government is passing a law, which will provide less remuneration to the farmers and they will not receive the full compensation. My dear farmer brothers and sisters, I cannot even think of committing this sin.” The use of ‘brothers and sisters’ to convey a sense of familiarity and warmth is something that Indira Gandhi used to employ too. For instance, in the Independence Day speech in 1976, at the height of the emergency, which was also telecast on Doordarshan, Indira began her speech by addressing her audience as “brothers, sisters and beloved children” (Prasar Bharati Archives no date [nd]).

Many of the MKB broadcasts have been devoted to reaching a young audience. This in a way tries to replicate Nehru’s special relationship to children where he was sometimes referred to as Chacha (Uncle) Nehru. Cynics might point out that is also a way to target a demographic that would soon be voters. Hence, several episodes have dealt with examinations. In February 2015, Modi said “I do not have the right to guide you on how to write a paper or how to pass the exams well. I cannot guide you on the tricks to obtain better marks because I consider myself an average student on such issues. But today, I want to definitely tell you something important. How you approach exams goes a long way in deciding the results of your exams.” The number of people who tune into MKB is not known, but the government claims it is a vibrant “two-way communication” where, according to the chairman of Prasar Bharati, “lakhs of listeners” send in their suggestions, some of which are mentioned by Modi (Press Information Bureau 2019).

While Modi has used the state media to good effect, the BJP government has not overtly tried to censor private media outlets. However, by propping up partisan media outlets, such as Arnab Goswami’s Republic TV (Jaffrelot and Jumle 2020), squeezing government advertising in outlets that are critical of the BJP (Ghoshal 2019) and astute use of social media, the Modi government has either largely ensured positive coverage or bypassed mainstream media. As the Economist (2020) notes, “By leaning on the big media conglomerates that dominate the mainstream media, by favouring outlets that share its ideology, such as Mr Goswami’s, and by flooding social media with agitprop, the BJP has largely marginalised critical voices in the press.” Moreover, India was ranked 142 out of 180 countries in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index (Reporters without Borders 2020).

Modi is also a master of using special occasions, such as Independence Day addresses and parliamentary speeches, to good effect. In this, there are some similarities with Nehru and Indira Gandhi. However, unlike Nehru who was a committed parliamentarian, whose speeches would get substantial press coverage, and Indira Gandhi much less so, Modi uses only special occasions, such as the reply to the President’s address in parliament or the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir, to address Parliament and by default directly address the nation.

Modi is the Message

As I have noted elsewhere, many of Modi’s public acts are suffused with symbolism, as is the way he dresses (Sen 2016). Again, this is not a new phenomenon and Nehru and Indira Gandhi were not averse to wearing local dresses and headgear to connect to people (Figure 2; Biswas 2015). Indira also carefully cultivated a regal look making a fashion statement out of the white streak in her hair (Figure 3).

Figure 2

Source: Wikipedia Commons

However, Modi has taken this to a different level, changing dress and appearance to suit the occasion and its mood, and has even become a style icon. Indeed, Modi’s physical persona is integral to his message. Lance Price had written in 2015 that a “man in his mid-sixties with glasses, grey hair and a beard is not everybody’s idea of a fashion icon” (Price 2015, 179). But that is precisely what Modi is viewed by many. Much like M K Gandhi’s association with khadi (Tarlo 1996) and Nehru’s with the Nehru jacket, Modi now has a sartorial item named after him. The short-sleeved version of the traditional kurta that Modi mostly preferred wearing before becoming prime minister is now known as ‘Modi kurta.’ Modi’s fondness for expensive luxury brands such as Bvlgari glasses, Movado watches and Mont Blanc pens could have been a handicap in India where Gandhian austerity, at least for outward appearance, has been the norm for most politicians. But Modi, according to fashion analysts, has been identified with “upward mobility” and “aspirational dressing” (Friedman 2014).

Figure 3

Source: Wikipedia Commons

Modi is also not averse to dramatic changes, much like his government policies, in personal appearance to suit the occasion. During the pandemic, he grew his hair and beard and by the time he addressed the nation on June 30, 2020, he looked distinctly different from before (Goswami 2020). While some argue that his look might have been tailored for the foundation ceremony for the Ram temple in Ayodhya on August 5, 2020, he has stuck to it. This gives him the appearance of a sage or Mahatma who “combines religion, philosophy and politics” (Sikandar 2020). This image was something that Modi had begun cultivating just before the last phase of voting for the 2019 general election, when he went to “meditate” in a cave near Kedarnath (Figure 4). 

Figure 4

Source: Wikipedia Commons

This has, however, not stopped him from dressing in a markedly different manner, such as donning military gear and dark glasses when visiting army bases. The latest occasion he did so was during Diwali in 2020 when he was photographed riding a tank in a camouflage jacket and military hat, like an “Old Testament figure transplanted to the Longewala border” (Figure 5; Karnad 2020).

Figure 5

Source: Wikipedia Commons


Much has been written about the BJP and Modi’s use of social media, which was pioneering in the Indian context in 2014 and has since been far better funded and organised than most political parties. Social media has contributed to building the brand and image of Modi. As Pal et al (2016) note, social media is particularly important for Modi since he has traditionally practiced “centralised, one-way messaging” (Pal et al 2016: 60). 

This is also part of the populist politics of Modi, which has been analysed by several scholars (Basu 2018; Chacko 2018; McDonnell and Cabrera 2019). His communication strategies and the way he draws a narrative of “us versus them” is a significant part of Modi’s populism. Social media provides Modi the way to circumvent traditional mediums and communicate directly to the people. Subir Sinha notes, “Modi took to social media to bypass elite media and to establish unmediated relations with the population to compose a specific people” (Sinha 2017: 4167).

In this paper, however, I have tried to show how Modi has also used traditional media, particularly the radio, to complement his social media strategies and directly communicate—the “one-way messaging” that Pal writes about—with people. This is a throwback to Nehru and Indira who, of course, did not have too many options beyond the radio and print media.

The big difference between Modi on one hand and Nehru and Indira Gandhi on the other is in their interactions with the press. According to veteran journalist Inder Malhotra, Nehru usually held a press conference every month. Malhotra writes, “Nehru always arrived on the dot and asked what subjects we wanted to discuss. He noted them serially and dealt with each at length, answering every question, and then moved on to the next topic” (Malhotra 2014). In fact, his last press conference was on May 22, 1964, days before he died. Indira Gandhi was less open to press conferences, but she was not averse to interviews with foreign journalists and taking tough questions. The post-Emergency period saw Indira Gandhi giving combative interviews to the famous broadcaster David Frost (India Today 1977) and British journalist Jonathan Dimbleby (Thamestv nd), which included uncomfortable questions on the Emergency and Sanjay Gandhi.

In sharp contrast, Modi rarely takes questions from the media or addresses press conferences. His discomfort with unfriendly questions, especially on the 2002 Gujarat riots, was dramatically illustrated in the infamous interview with Karan Thapar in 2007 from which he walked out. The riots was a subject that he “refused to engage with” in his many private interviews with Price. When he does give public interviews, it is usually during election time and often to friendly journalists and celebrities. Indeed, Modi’s “nonpolitical” interview with film star Akshay Kumar, days before voting began for the 2019 general elections, was hugely popular and a PR masterstroke (Figure 6). After the election he took part in an episode of Man vs Wild with adventurer Bear Grylls, which had record ratings for the genre (India Today 2019). Modi’s genius for communications goes back to the 1990s when he was one of the key organisers of L K Advani’s rath yatra. As Robin Jeffrey notes, he had also made two trips to the United States in the 1990s during which he apparently received “media training” (Jeffrey 2015a).

Figure 6

Source: Twitter

There is little doubt that there are few who can rival Modi’s communication skills, especially when he is working a large crowd, in person and using mass media. According to Price, among Blair, Thatcher, Clinton and Obama, “none… ever engaged a crowd with such fervent, visceral passion as Narendra Modi” (Price 2015). As many have noted, Modi is central to the BJP’s dominance (Sircar 2020; Maiorano and Sen 2020; Sen 2019). According to the CSDS-Lokniti post-poll survey for the 2019 general election, a third of those who voted for the BJP said that they would have voted differently if Modi had not been the prime ministerial candidate. Arguably, Modi’s communication skills and his masterly use of the media, both old and new, are central to his popularity. This is what sets him apart from both Nehru and Indira Gandhi and the BJP from the Congress system in its prime.



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