Mann Ki Baat: Modi’s pet platform

BY SHUMA RAHA| IN Media Practice | 01/12/2016
An ingenious and influential communication tool, Mann Ki Baat continues to be a great favourite of Narendra Modi’s. In two years, 446 million Indians have heard him chat to them.
SHUMA RAHA looks at this unprecedented reach

 

“I have taken this huge decision for the poor, the farmers, the workers, the deprived and the aggrieved.” So said Prime Minister Narendra Modi last Sunday in the 26th edition of Mann Ki Baat, his monthly address to the nation on All India Radio.

He was talking about his move to demonetise Rs 500 and Rs 1000 currency notes, of course. And this particular episode of Mann Ki Baat was devoted almost entirely to the issue. Modi said that he understood the travails of the common people as they struggled to cope with the cash crunch post demonetisation. That eradicating a “disease” of 70 years (ie, corruption) could not be an easy process. That the country would emerge from this ordeal burnished like gold. He held up his vision of India becoming a cashless economy, or, at least, a “less-cash” economy. And he exhorted the youth to be the agents of this change, to take up the task of initiating the elderly into the practice of making e-transactions.

In other words, along with his public rallies in the wake of the demonetisation announcement of November 8, Mann Ki Baat (MKB) was yet another platform employed by Modi to keep people enthused about this mammoth, and monumentally painful, exercise. The central message here, as it was in his rallies, was that despite being strapped for cash, the people were with him in this noble endeavour because they understood that he was doing it for them — hewas the crusader who was going after black money and the corrupt rich in order to benefit the poor.

The outreach was important, for Mann Ki Baat has a huge potential audience. According to data from AIR made available to The Hoot, 446 million people have been exposed to Mann Ki Baat in the last two years. (AIR itself has a reach of 99.2% of the population.) A field survey conducted by the audience research unit of the Directorate General of AIR after the August 2016 episode revealed that 7 out of 10 people (above the age of 15) were aware of the programme. And 5 out of 10 people had listened to it at least once.

 

"According to data from AIR made available to The Hoot, 446 million people have been exposed to Mann Ki Baat in the last two years."

 

Indeed, ever since its launch on October 3, 2014, Mann Ki Baat has become an inseparable plank of Modi’s 360 degree, direct-to-people communication strategy, one that encompasses Facebook, Twitter, the government’s citizen engagement platform, MyGov.in, and the Narendra Modi App.

Inspired by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “fireside chat” radio addresses (1933-1944), Mann Ki Baat takes off from where Modi’s “Chai Pe Charcha", his informal chats at tea stalls in the run-up to the 2014 general elections, left off. It’s where he talks to the people — not in bite-sized tweets his zillions of followers can snack on, not with the fiery demagoguery that marks his public rallies, but in the sage, quiet tones of an avuncular family member. 

The episodes, which are disseminated on AIR, Doordarshan and live-streamed on AIR’s web portal, its mobile app, the Narendra Modi App and so on, are pitched as a two-way heart-to-heart of sorts. The Prime Minister not only shares his thoughts, but also gives space to the words of citizens who write or post messages to him. Part sermon, part homily, part state propaganda, MKB are a unique vehicle for Modi to talk about his pet projects in a familiar, conversational style. 

So even as he chats about festivals or the weather, about seasonal illnesses or exams, IPL or the Olympics, even as he repeatedly salutes the kisan and the jawan, and addresses himself again and again to the youth, he also talks about programmes like Swachh Bharat, Jan Dhan Yojana, insurance schemes for the poor, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, Gold Monetisation Scheme, giving up LPG subsidy, the proposed amendments to the Land Acquisition Act and many others.

Interestingly, the eradication of black money, one of Modi’s major poll promises, has found mention too. For example, in the Mann Ki Baat of November 2, 2014, he says, “This is my commitment that the hard-earned money of the poor people stashed abroad, every penny of that should be brought back.”. More than a year later, in the June 27, 2016, episode he doesn’t talk about bringing back the booty anymore. Rather, he announces the voluntary income disclosure scheme, asking people to own up to their unaccounted for income by September 30, and warning them that this was their last chance to come clean. 

So how effective has Mann Ki Baat been as a communication tool? How closely does India listen to the leader as benevolent family elder, one who converses as genially about Diwali as he does about Digital India?

 

"How closely does India listen to the leader as a benevolent family elder who chats as genially about Diwali as he does about Digital India?"

 

Well, in terms of sheer breadth of reach, Mann ki Baat is hard to beat. The roughly 20-minute address — some go up to 30 minutes — at 11 am on the last Sunday of the month is broadcast from every station and on every channel of the All India Radio, including medium wave, short wave, FM Rainbow/Gold, Vividh Bharati and so on. “All stations and all channels of AIR carry it simultaneously,” says Rajeev Kumar Shukla, Deputy Director General (Programme), AIR. “It is the PM’s address to the nation — it is obviously our flagship programme.”

 Mann Ki Baat is also broadcast on DD National and DD News and live-streamed on the AIR website, the AIR mobile app, its YouTube channel, on pmonradio.nic.in, MyGov.in and the Narendra Modi App. 

Most private television news channels carry it as well. That includes top English and Hindi news channels such as NDTV, Times Now, India Today TV, CNN News 18, Zee News, ABP News, Aaj Tak, India 24X7 and so on. Many private radio stations such as Big FM and Red FM broadcast it too, as do several community radio stations. 

In the early days of Mann Ki Baat, media reports suggested that the PMO was exercising gentle pressure on private players to broadcast it. A report in Hindustan Times on December 19, 2014, said, “…while preparing for the second show aired on November 2, the PMO got in touch with All-India Radio (AIR), “desiring” that private radio and TV channels relay audio of the talk.” Today, most seem to have slipped into the habit of broadcasting it without ado.

For the non-Hindi speaking population, AIR follows up every edition of Mann ki Baat with regional language versions of the PM’s Hindi address. This time they were broadcast immediately afterwards, although up until the October 30 2016 episode, the English and regional language versions used to be put out at 8pm on the same day.

Again, if you miss a live episode of Mann ki Baat, there is the option to give a missed call to 1922 from your phone to register for a replay. You will soon get an automated call on your mobile number and can then listen to the entire episode. 

Hence, Mann Ki Baat takes a traditional medium like the radio and marries it to the entire spectrum of communication technologies available — from television to the internet, from social media to mobile telephony. And whereas other prime ministers got this kind of blanket coverage — by the public broadcasters as well as multiple private ones — only during their address to the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort on Independence Day every year, Modi gets it once every month.

Unfortunately, no independent research exists on the listenership of Mann Ki Baat. But AIR’s own surveys provide a glimpse into the level of public engagement with the programme. The quick telephonic surveys it conducts a day after each MKB episode covering 2700 respondents above the age of 18 reveal an average awareness of 70% and a listenership of about 30%.

A more extensive study conducted in August this year on 200 respondents (above the age of 15) each at 30 station locations representing 22 states and two Union Territories throws up the same awareness level of 70%. In some states like Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, it goes up to as high as 92.5 %. Interestingly, Manipur posts the highest awareness level — 95.5 %.

 The survey also reveals that about 50 per cent had heard the programme at least once.

Again, the level of citizen engagement with the programme can also be gauged from the number of suggestions for topics that are posted on MyGov.in, the Narendra Modi App and so on. For example, MyGov.in received as many as 5169 suggestions for the latest Mann Ki Baat. Needless to say, almost all were to do with the issue of demonetisation.

 

"AIR refuses to reveal if the number of letters has come down in recent months from the highs of the initial episodes."

 

AIR’s News Service Division reveals that during the last MKB episode, its live tweets from @airnewsalerts alone had an engagement of nearly 39 lakh and impressions of more than 4 crore. All this, together with the letters received by AIR — roughly 1600 per episode on an average — the suggestions on the various platforms, the likes, the retweets and so on, suggest a fairly high level of citizen engagement.

 The question though is, has MKB’s listenership and public response gone up, plateaued or suffered a decline over time?

Not surprisingly, no substantive comparative data is available on that score. AIR refuses to reveal if the number of letters has come down in recent months from the highs of the initial episodes. To date the highest number of letters received was for the December 2014 episode — 4794; the high-profile January 2015 episode, which was addressed jointly by Modi and US President Barack Obama, garnered 2632 letters (This one was memorable also because of the way Modi repeatedly addressed Obama with a jaunty “Barack”  even as the US President treated him to a polite and formal “Prime Minister Modi”.)

What can be said without doubt is that Mann Ki Baat is an ingenious and influential communication platform for Modi. And given its sophisticated, multi-level dissemination and its staggering potential audience, the Prime Minister will likely unleash them once every month for a long time to come.

 

Shuma Raha is a senior journalist based in Delhi. 
She tweets @ShumaRaha

 

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