By Fayyaz Sheheryar, Director General
In an 1895 article "Brunch: A Plea" in Hunter's Weekly, British author Guy Beringer defines ‘Sunday brunch’ as "cheerful, sociable and talk-compelling. It puts you in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, and it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week."
For 49 months now, All India Radio has been setting the table one Sunday a month for elevenses, a special brunch so to speak, featuring a special man at the head of the table.
We had watched the man speak in a high-octane election campaign for months in 2014. We also saw how he pulled crowds from across geographical entities of India which was ample indication for us at All India Radio (AIR) that here was a broadcaster worth his salt.
On 20 May 2014, as he bowed and touched his forehead on the steps of the entrance to Parliament House as the BJP’s Prime Minister-designate, we saw a person risen from the ranks and attaining heights in a big and complex democracy proudly calling himself a ‘sevak’ rather than a ‘ruler’. It occurred to us that he could (what in broadcasting parlance is called) “make good radio” as broadcasters like us, primarily for public service broadcasting, search for nothing but a captive audience.
Thus we approached a stern-faced, matter of fact Prime Minister, carrying in our arms the strength of All India Radio, and requested him to create an apolitical bridge between the elector and the elected.
Dynamic changes have taken place at a dizzy pace on the audio-visual landscape. While these changes are by and large technology-driven and global in their sweep, one revolutionary change occurred nearer home in India when the Prime Minister, for the first time in the history of Indian broadcasting, gave the nod to the nation’s public service broadcaster, for Mann Ki Baat, his informal, intimate exchange of ideas and thoughts with his fellow countrymen.
Today as the 50th episode of Mann Ki Baat is aired, it is time to look back at the unique monthly radio address which started in October 2014 and has had a memorable run. It began as a curious communication phenomenon where a leading, tech-savvy politician indulges, ironically, in a strictly apolitical conversation on a seemingly obsolete medium. It has now become a part of India’s cultural zeitgeist and entered popular lexicon. When you say ‘Mann Ki Baat’ there’s hardly anyone who won’t get what you are talking about, such has been its impact. Its popularity is not without reason – it has had some significant moments.
It has also had its moments of trepidation for me, particularly in those early days as I had attempted to bring into the fold of AIR a staunch critic of political rivals and chances were the broadcast might attract and wean away my audiences in equal measure. But that was not to be.
It is tempting to ask “In today’s world, why did the Prime Minister choose radio?” The reasons are not far to seek. Radio is an intimate, story-telling medium. There cannot be a more potent instrument than radio for such a candid, /warm/intimate uninhibited exchange of ideas between the country’s Prime Minister and his people. And AIR’s reach is stupendous, with about 600 channels carrying the programme.
As broadcast followed broadcast, attracting applause not only at home but abroad, we saw BBC and NPR chasing me to permit dissemination in those parts of the world where most other modes of broadcasting are second to radio.
It transformed my Prime Minister into a school-teacher, a sports guide, a philanthropist, counsellor, ambassador of peace and brotherhood, a concerned head of the government that was intermittently and intensely bothered by the effect of climate change & global warming, his concerns about people and their surroundings being visibly untidy, a democrat who wished justice and equality merely on the basis of being citizen of India.
Many world leaders have realised the power of radio – Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt (with his popular radio addresses called Fireside Chats) and successive Presidents of the United States of America. The erstwhile US President Barack Obama was more than happy to partner our Prime Minister in this special broadcast when he touched down in India for Republic Day 2015.
This special edition in which the Indian Prime Minister and the US President talk about their humble beginnings and their concern for people especially the youth had an indelible impact. Both emphasized on youth power saying “Communists used to say earlier, 'workers of the world unite.' I think today it should be youth -- unite the world”. This gave a new fillip to the country’s youth, prompting them to come forward to partner the Government in the task of nation-building. This was also America’s tribute to the people’s Prime Minister in India.
Mann Ki Baat, far above the terrestrial transmission, reached Indian and global audiences alike through live streaming supported by AIR’s official mobile app – ‘All India Radio LIVE’; through megaphones in Panchayats as a narrowcast for a clustered audience through Direct to Home (DTH) devices. And most recently, through Amazon’s Echo Dot where Alexa takes command and you get the AIR service of your choice.
Most of all, Indians in different parts of India, speaking regional languages, and those that form the Indian Diaspora and those too who are not Indians at all but have deep interest in Indian affairs all get versions of Mann Ki Baat in their language including English and Sanskrit.
That has made Mann Ki Baat the most widely disseminated radio broadcast in the world, making it an example of what is best in public service broadcasting.
Every time I travelled abroad in the last four years, many professionals in the Asia Pacific region and European Broadcasting Union echoed my view that radio in a democracy needs to cement different segments of audiences which can hardly be done unless the Chief Executive of the country knocks at their doors every last Sunday of the month at 11 am. And wanting any and all among his audience to send in their views, so that he replies and wherever possible, remedies.
The idea of Mann Ki Baat attracted commercial radio and radio and television news in private sector and it is broadcast not merely for its intrinsic news value but also for it bringing a healing touch to those sections lacking access to counselling and redressal.
Mann Ki Baat is unique in many respects. First, it is an unexpurgated broadcast – spontaneous, candid, uninhibited and straight from the heart – from the Prime Minister. Secondly, it is digitally created spoken word disseminated through terrestrial mode, DTH and internet platforms. Thirdly, the programme is designed to invoke reciprocity, leading to a deluge of letters and feedback on the MyGov portal from people sharing their trials, tribulations, concerns and aspirations with their Prime Minister. Yet another feature is crowd sourcing to elicit suggestions and inputs for subsequent episodes in a self-effacing gesture by the Prime Minister.
A rewind to some of the milestones: In December 2014, the Modi government had launched ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’, a programme aimed at bringing about a societal transformation in the way the girl child is treated, with a special focus upon more than a 100 gender-sensitive districts which had a skewed sex ratio.
A few months later, a sarpanch clicked a selfie with his daughter in a Haryana village. By itself, this would have meant little more than a happy moment for the father-daughter duo. Little did they know that they would end up creating a worldwide trend.
Taking a cue from the Haryana village sarpanch, the Prime Minister spoke about BetiBachao and appealed to people to put up a #SelfieWithDaughter on social media and tell everyone how proud they were of their daughters. There was such tremendous positivity generated by this worldwide trend that each picture of a daughter basking in the love of her proud parents was a sight to behold.
Commoners, cricketers, celebrities, international diplomats, politicians, media persons and even people from other countries from all walks of life tweeted and posted their #SelfieWithDaughter.
The atmosphere of love and pride it created was lauded universally, not only by people from across the world but also by at least one politician from the Congress.
In a single stroke, the constant negativity around a sensitive but important matter had been turned into a positive, ‘can do’ atmosphere that resonated with the message that nothing is more precious than a daughter.
Mann Ki Baat and Swachh Bharat are connected in more ways than one. For starters, while Swachh Bharat was launched on October 2nd 2014, the first episode of Mann Ki Baat went on air on October 3rd 2014, the very next day. The next connection is that Mann Ki Baat, for the Prime Minister, has been one of the important platforms in strengthening the cleanliness mission and making it a more people-driven movement. Most episodes of the radio address, if not all, have some element relating to ‘Swachhata’ in them.
In many editions of Mann Ki Baat, the Prime Minister mentions interesting but inspiring anecdotes from the lives of common people who want to see a cleaner India. From a retired teacher donating a third of his life’s savings to the cleanliness mission to a girl in a Karnataka village who resorted to Satyagraha to get a toilet built, a widespread involvement of people in cleanliness mission can be seen.
One especially endearing phone call that the Prime Minister received on a Mann Ki Baat episode will, however, remain something to be marveled at. A young boy, a child in fact, called the Prime Minister on the number dedicated for Mann Ki Baat inputs. He had a one-line command for the Prime Minister of the country – ‘Ensure availability of dustbins in every street’.
This was, at once, both a vindication and an indication. It was a vindication of the Mann Ki Baat platform that it gave a voice to a child who wanted to be heard on an important issue as well as an indication of how much the message of a clean India has percolated into the minds of the generation that will create the India of tomorrow.
Youth, especially students, as well as lifestyle issues of our competitive times have been a regular focus of Mann Ki Baat. The Prime Minister had dedicated one complete episode in February 2016 to the topic of facing exams in a stress-free manner. People who faced tremendous pressure themselves and excelled, such as Sachin Tendulkar, Viswanathan Anand and Prof CNR Rao, too, featured in this episode giving valuable, non-preachy, simple tips to students.
Later, driven by the overwhelming positive feedback from the students, teachers, parents and the education community on how impactful this episode was, the Prime Minister went on to write the best-selling book ‘Exam Warriors’ on the same topic. What started out as a topic on a radio address turned into a bestselling book of students.
Speaking of exams and stress, there was another related topic, one that society often brushes under the carpet that the Prime Minister spoke of in one of the episodes of Mann Ki Baat. It was about depression. It was a heartfelt and meaningful gesture when he spoke of the vulnerability of the youth, especially students who lived in hostels to depression. He charted the way out of depression in his own unique way when he advocated for expression rather than suppression to help oneself come out of depression.
He stressed on communication, creation of a psychologically conducive environment, support of family and friends, professional help and Yoga to win against lifestyle diseases like depression that are often trivialized and stigmatized. An Indian political leader reaching out to the vulnerable on such a sensitive matter, with deep understanding and empathy, was unprecedented. This was universally hailed and, to many, was a highpoint of Mann Ki Baat as this was truly Mann Ki Baat.
From the girl child to student stress, from cleanliness to coming out of depression, the Prime Minister has often utilized Mann Ki Baat as a platform to evocatively make society speak to itself by speaking to him. Mann Ki Baat has become a conversation that millions of Indians look forward to, with their cup of tea on a Sunday every month.
And All India Radio has the privilege to host it.