Sixty million people watched Rajiv’s maiden appearance as prime minister on television. By 1986 the number had doubled. The total number of viewers still constituted just a tenth of the population. But it was a crucial segment. It consisted of businessmen, politicians, bureaucrats, journalists and readers of newspapers—people whose views, between elections at least, constituted critical feedback for any government. And this was the constituency Rajiv and his image builders, mostly an informal bunch of friends and handpicked members of his staff, set out to woo. And if they were more successful than Mrs Gandhi had been, it was because they, unlike her, understood television.

In Indira Gandhi’s time, coverage of the prime minister was dull and predictable: usually silent footage of her visit to a city or a village with a monotonous voiceover. The only times she actually spoke on television was when she addressed the nation or when Doordarshan televised her speech at some gathering. Consequently, she never came across as a real flesh-and-blood person on TV.

But in the more marketing-savvy times that her son assumed power, the old approach was discarded. The first thing his advisors realised was that television was, in Marshal McLuhan’s term, a ‘cool’ medium: it did not lend itself to blatant propaganda. It needed a subtler, more visually oriented approach: a soft sell.

Accordingly, heavy-handed, non-visual mentions of the prime minister in news broadcasts were reduced and replaced by visuals that just showed him in action without singing his praises. Central to the success of this strategy was Rajiv’s own personality. He was young, charismatic and spoke to the people rather than at them as his mother used to do.

Rajiv’s emergence as a TV natural was not accidental. His image builders realised early on that every time he read an address out to the nation on television, he came across as stiff and wooden. So he stopped reading. If he did speak, it was extempore, and therefore, more natural. Then his staff discovered that while he was not a good orator, he was best in conversational situations where he could respond to questions. So such situations were televised: his meeting with children, his lunches at press clubs in Washington and Delhi and the like.

His foreign visits, where he impressed hosts and the media with his charm and easy manner, were awarded saturation coverage to score brownie points with the home audience. And special care was taken in the presentation of Rajiv’s visits to the backward areas of the country. In 1985, the prime minister visited places such as Rajasthan and Silent Valley in Kerala to get a first-hand account of the problems faced by the underprivileged. In each case, eight hours of film was whittled down to create a halfhour programme that showed Rajiv chatting with local people, sympathising with their problems and pulling up errant government officials. The films were edited, not by ham-fisted hacks at Doordarshan but by the minister’s own secretariat. The unprecedented sight of a prime minister castigating his own officers combined with the scenic locations of his visits made these programmes primetime stuff.

Though the clever packaging and his own considerable charm made Doordarshan’s obsession with the prime minister more diverting than it had been in Indira’s days, it did not do much for the credibility of the medium. To counter the potential harm, cosmetic changes were made on television. A current news programme went on air for the first time, and in Janvani, the public was actually allowed to confront cabinet ministers. The prime minister also wrote a letter to his Information and Broadcasting minister that was cleverly leaked to the press. In the letter he complained that the news on TV read like handouts and too much time was spent on building up the image of the prime minister and his cabinet.

The elaborate exercise worked wonders. Twelve months into his term, the habitually cynical press was full of praise for the prime minister. Traditional Congress baiters such as Arun Shourie and M. J. Akbar had changed their tune (the latter ended up joining the party). The anti-Indira paper, Indian Express was eulogistic. Even the Opposition was charmed. ‘Rajiv Gandhi comes across as a sincere and interested person who is keen to shed the confrontationist attitude of his mother,’ claimed BJP’s L. K. Advani. The man who, till a year ago, had been perceived, at best, as a nice guy who had entered politics to help ‘mummy’ was suddenly being described in embarrassingly laudatory terms: Mr Clean, A great conciliator, Inspiring leader, Twenty-first century visionary, brave, dynamic, self-assured....

By 1989, towards the end of Rajiv’s tenure, it was clear that the 21st century was still a distant dream. Poverty had not been eradicated. More than half the population could not read or write. Terrorism raged in Punjab and Assam. In Kashmir, conditions had worsened.

The government’s clever tactics with regard to television no longer worked. The news continued to read like handouts, giving the lie to Rajiv’s purported desire for objectivity on television. And Doordarshan’s obsession with the prime minister had finally led to overkill: one TV critic effectively described the public reaction by repeating two words in an entire review: ‘Rajiv Gandhi’.

Excerpted with permission from Telly-Guillotined How Television Changed India, Amrita Shah, Sage Publications/Yoda Press.