Prime Minister Narendra Modi engaged celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan and Sachin Tendulkar on Twitter to increase his visibility and help his electoral ambitions during the run-up to the 2014 general elections in India, according to a US study.
Joyojeet Pal, associate professor at the University of Michigan, examined over 9,000 tweets from
@narendramodi between February 2009 and October 2015 to research Modi's engagement with Indian public figures pre- and post-elections.
Modi started tweeting in the year 2009 when he was among a very few leaders of India on a social media platform. By October 2012, he had over one million followers. At present, his account has over 46 million followers.
During the early and mid-2000s, a series of public relations challenges plagued the outreach machine of Modi. Antagonistic live interactions with television commentators, made media appearances unpredictable, Pal said.
"A number of mainstream films directly addressed the 2002 Gujarat riots and pointed towards politicians and the administration as the perpetrators of the riots," Pal wrote in the study.
According to Pal, Modi's rise to political leadership coincided with the expanding use of social media in India.
"As a result, a vast range of celebrity engagements, both during the campaign period, and in the subsequent leadership of the government, were enabled and widely disseminated with greater access to digital media outreach online," he said.
Examining Modi's Twitter feed, researchers found 414 instances of tweets with the mention of celebrities, including those in which multiple celebrities were mentioned.
According to Pal, there were three distinct phases of engagement that happened in the six years he studied Modi's tweets.
In the first phase, it was important to move Modi away from being seen either as a provincial politician with polarising views or with no national appeal. He started by creating a more acceptable national image.
During the second phase, he reached out to celebrities like actor Amitabh Bachchan, businessman Narayana Murthy, cricketer Sachin Tendulkar and spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.By engaging with them, he presented the notion that people outside of his core supporters and with broad followings were willing to engage with him.
Around 2013, his approach moved to getting support for his campaign by referring to various celebrities in his tweets, posing with them, and in some cases, getting their outright endorsement for his campaign. During this phase, celebrity engagement was mainly through pictures showing affiliation.
The third phase of celebrity engagement was post election, when he called on celebrities primarily as champions for his initiatives. According to Pal, this was the phase when he presented his initiatives as campaigns with national appeal rather than something imposed on the country.
This is particularly seen with the "Swachh Bharat," a national movement to clean up India's roads and infrastructure, and, subsequently, with demonetisation.
Celebrity engagement at these points presents the views of a collaborative, thoughtful leader. Most of the figures who were named by Modi did not publicly express electoral support for him. The references to most of the celebrities were either congratulatory or casual, suggesting an important role for implicit celebrity engagement, researchers said.
"One of the ways he engaged was by calling out celebrities. So for example, he would use the hashtag of a celebrity, like @deepikapadukone, and ask her to encourage young people to vote," said Pal.
Pal said that social media users may not have known if Modi knew the actress Deepika Padukone, but his tweets suggest that he did.More importantly, it also suggests that he was interested in encouraging citizens to vote. Even if the celebrity is reluctant to take a position in favour of or against a politician, their exchange with Modi ends up being suggestive of a positive relationship.