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How History Will Look at Mann Ki Baat…

Mann Ki Baat

I know the difference the radio can make. It has

a transformative power like no other medium

—Narendra Modi

Radio, the innocuous instrument for information dissemination, had been part of our daily lives for many decades before its importance slowly faded away. However, post 2014, there has been a revival of the medium in the popular imagination like never before. The credit for this rests solely with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who used radio as a way to usher in a social revolution in every nook and corner of the country. That social revolution is called ‘Mann Ki Baat’.

As ‘Mann Ki Baat’ completes 53 episodes, and goes into a short hibernation before resuming again after the national elections, how should we assess this phenomenon that so animated all of us for the last four and a half years? How will history look at ‘Mann Ki Baat’?

Below is a word cloud made by using the transcripts of the first 50 episodes of ‘Mann Ki Baat’. It presents quite a comprehensive view of what ‘Mann Ki Baat’ was all about.

But beyond this world cloud, are there some overarching themes that emerge from the 53 episodes of ‘Mann Ki Baat’ in its ‘first term’? We analysed all the episodes of ‘Mann Ki Baat’ and below is the analysis of what we believe to be the central tenants of ‘Mann Ki Baat’ – the true essence of this revolutionary communication between the people and the chief executive of the country.

1. Fostering the Spirit of Volunteerism

Initially, people were surprised at the choice of topics taken up the prime minister on ‘Mann Ki Baat’. He would pick up themes, which would seem non-glamourized and seemingly insignificant on the face of it, but these resonated with people at large. Without sounding fantastical or sanctimonious, he would appeal to people to come forward and become ‘agents of change’. Be it the appeal to the youth of the country to clean up statues of our great heroes, or to adopt Khadi voluntarily or to go out in vacation time and teach underprivileged students or spread the message of digital payments, the essence has always been on promoting a sense of voluntary participation for the public good.

At first, these may seem like small measures but when done at a mass scale, they have the potential to bring a sustained behavioural change in the society. That is how Swachhata became a mass movement which gave us our true citizen heroes who were cleaned up public places from Mumbai to Varanasi or were inspired to build toilets for schools and community from their own savings.

2. ‘Megaphone’ for Positivity

A country as big as India is replete with stories of extraordinary deeds done by ordinary people. Prime Minister made ‘Mann Ki Baat’ a megaphone for these positive stories. PM Modi’s promise was simple. If you are doing good, selfless positive work in any corner of the country then your ambassador to broadcast your goodness will be none other than the Prime Minister of India. Inspired by this narration, others may take up the same cause and what may have started as a small change somewhere becomes a chain of national transformation. According to a survey conducted by Akashvani, the majority of the respondents find enhancement of positivity in the society as the greatest contribution of the radio address.

3. The paradigm of Jan Bhagidari

The radio, that has a reach spanning the length and the breadth of the nation, is just the right medium to spur a mass movement. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has made ‘Jan Bhagidari’ an integral part of his governance model, effectively used ‘Mann Ki Baat’ platform to bring together people to achieve collective, transformative outcomes. Swachh Bharat could not have been successful had it just remained a government programme. Khadi sales would not have zoomed had people not responded to the appeal made by PM Modi to adopt Khadi. ‘Give It Up’ would not have taken off had people not believed that their giving up the subsidy for LPG cylinders would benefit the nation. ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ campaign would not have shown such positive results in states that needed it to work the most had people not responded with equal fervour to PM Modi’s appeal. That is the power of Jan Bhagidari, or participative governance, that ‘Mann Ki Baat’ so effectively tapped.

4. Focusing on People, Not on Politics

What is spectacularly unique about ‘Mann Ki Baat’ is that not once did PM Modi raise political issues in these more than fifty episodes.

In such contentious political environment, for a politician to stay away from politics in a captive medium reaching almost every Indian, even at the time of elections, and focussing entirely on social change, is something completely unheard of.  It would have required not just immense self-discipline but an unshakeable belief in the cause for which PM Modi was working to have been able to pull it off. To give a contrast, a similar non-formal “conversation’ exercise was tried out by a leader in Delhi. It lasted just one episode because the lure of getting into partisan politics could not be avoided.

5. Awakening the consciousness of the nation

As a culturally rooted leader, PM Modi consistently showcased India’s hidden cultural and historical gems. Through ‘Mann Ki Baat’, he time and again brought the focus on forgotten heroes from the pages of history as well as reawakened our cultural pride by highlighting the depth of our beliefs and traditions in innovative ways. For instance, in one of the episodes, he spoke to a caller in Sanskrit, thus highlighting the richness of India’s ancient language. The medium of radio was also used to reawaken the legacy of India’s historical giants such as Sardar Patel, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, Netaji and so on, whose immense contribution to nation building was, in many ways, forgotten during the first six decades of our independence as just one family became important. ‘Mann Ki Baat’ reintroduced Jagadguru Basaveshwara to a national audience in a modern, young country. It was ‘Mann Ki Baat’ which reintroduced in the popular imagination the concepts that democracy is not a western import but has its roots in civilizational India. It was ‘Mann Ki Baat’ that taught us through historical examples that we as a society, empowered women centuries before it became fashionable in the West.

6. A healthy society makes a healthy nation

A nation is not just about policies or politics. It is the people and the society they inhabit that makes a nation the thriving centre of human endeavours. PM Modi understands this better than most political leaders and that is why he choose the topics that he did in various episodes of ‘Mann Ki Baat’. For example, his call to keep water for birds on window ledges or offer drinking water to milkmen, postmen, hawkers, vegetable sellers and such people who come to our homes frequently in summers. Ostensibly these are not topics that should animate the prime minister of a county. And yet, this is what made ‘Mann Ki Baat’ the phenomenon that it became. A monthly national conversation about us, the people, and our daily lives. By talking about difficult issues such as drug abuse, depression, road rage, PM Modi created a mainstream discourse to address issues that were otherwise swept under the carpet.

7. The power of a rooted leader

‘Mann Ki Baat’ never sounded preachy, precisely because the suggestions that PM Modi made, the anecdotes he gave and the issues he picked mirrored our lived experience. It never sounded like a forced conversation with a man who does not understand India or represents only a small elite divorced from the larger reality. Instead, ‘Mann Ki Baat’ seemed to draw from the national reality. When PM Modi goaded the nation to conserve water during monsoons, it was not just the Prime Minister speaking to his officers, instead, it was more a family elder who understood the importance of conservation. It was a rooted leader who would understand the importance of using clay diyas during Diwali and that is why his appeal to adopt clay diyas would become a recurring theme each Diwali thereafter.

Evidently, it was the implicit trust that PM Modi generated that inspired hundreds of thousands of people to connect to ‘Mann Ki Baat’ through MyGov, letters to AIR and PMO, telephone calls, suggestions on Narendra Modi app and other social media platforms.

8. Turning transformative power of radio into social good

In the 50th episode of ‘Mann Ki Baat’, Prime Minister Modi revealed the reason for him taking to the radio to reach out to the masses and not any other, more advanced medium. From an early age, he had witnessed the reach of the radio which convinced him of the medium’s immense power.

It was tea-seller in Himachal Pradesh that made Prime Minister Modi realise the power of the radio. Here is how he narrates the entire story:

Let me quote an incident. The year was 1998, I was then a party worker with the Bharatiya Janata Party in Himachal Pradesh. It was the month of May and I was travelling to a certain place. Evenings tend to get cold in the hilly terrain of Himachal Pradesh, and I stopped at a wayside tea stall and placed an order for tea. It was a tiny joint. There was only one person who would make and serve tea. He was not even adequately clothed. It was a standalone kiosk on the edge of the road. He first picked up a laddoo from a glass container, offered the sweet to me and said, ‘Sir, eat this before the tea gets ready.’ I was taken aback and asked him, ‘What is the matter? Is there any celebration of an occasion or a wedding?’ He replied, ‘No brother, nothing like that. Don’t you know, it’s a momentous, and joyous occasion.’ On seeing his rather jubilant exuberance, I asked him, ‘But what exactly happened?’ And he replied, ‘India has exploded the bomb today!’ I exclaimed, ‘India has exploded the bomb! I don’t get it.’ He said, ‘Sir, just listen to the radio.’ Indeed, that was the exact topic of discussion on the radio. It was then that he elaborated on how on the day of the nuclear test, the then Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee had announced it to the media and how he started dancing upon listening to it on the radio. It intrigued me to see this lone tea seller in a remote, snow-clad hilly place, who possibly kept listening to the radio the entire day. Watching that particular effect of the news on the radio led me to realise and internalise that this was a medium that was truly connected with the masses and that it was a mighty means of reaching out.

Now that the national elections are approaching in which he himself is a candidate, PM Modi has voluntarily suspended the March and April 2019 episodes of ‘Mann Ki Baat’.  But there is no reason for despondency. He has promised that “I will be back” in May 2019.  We should take him at his word.

‘Mann Ki Baat’ is not about government but about our society and an aspirational India —Narendra Modi