Mann Ki Baat: The Inside Story
In the aftermath of the hoopla around the 100th episode of the PM’s radio show, some facts and figures that give the game away
On Sunday, April 30, people from the Indian diaspora living in the major European capitals were mobilised to listen to the PM’s Mann Ki Baat (MKB). The time difference (6 a.m. GMT) seemed to have made no difference to those like Raageshwari, who gushed, “Waking up at 4 in the morning, getting ready and coming here—absolutely fruitful.” Lest this be misconstrued as sarcasm, she shared a photograph showing herself sitting between the Indian High Commissioner to the UK, Vikram Doraiswami, and minister Jitendra Singh at India House, London, adding that the experience was “fantastic”, and going on to invite “all the children in the UK” to attend the next episode.
Doraiswami hit a more diplomatic note when he said, “I think the great bit for the community was to be involved with it as a community, rather than individually listening to it at home.” (In private, it would appear that many of the invitees hoped they would be spared next time and that a different lot of invitees would have the dubious delight of joining the jamboree.)
The following day (May 1), a report in The Times of India claimed that the 100th episode was a spectacular success. Without referring to any source, it claimed that as many as 1.1 million people had posted photographs of themselves listening to the broadcast and that 900,000 (9 lakh) people around the world had tweeted about it—underwhelming figures in light of the fact that the entire apparatus of the Union government and the ruling BJP was mobilised to make the 100th episode a memorable event.
People were rounded up from Raj Bhavans to railway stations to listen to the PM in person. This, in addition to more than 500 radio stations, Doordarshan’s 34 channels and 51 private TV channels relaying the broadcast. By the end of the mega government-managed event, All-India Radio (AIR) had spent Rs 9 crore and, it is learnt, has furnished the bill to its parent ministry, the ministry of information and broadcasting (I&B).
So much for the big splash. Two surveys conducted a year ago, one with the blessing of the government, the other by the independent think tank Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS)—brought to light completely opposite findings.
The government-run IIM–Rohtak survey declared that more than 100 crore people had listened to MKB at least once and 23 crore people were regular listeners. CSDS, in its study Media in India: Access, Practices, Concerns and Effects published last year, found that even in Hindi-speaking states, the audience was small: 9 per cent of households with a high media presence, 4 per cent with a moderate media presence and 2 per cent with a low media presence had listened to MKB.
An internal survey by AIR of the regular listeners’ sample of 9,000 in 2021 had also showed an alarming dip in interest—compelling them to put a lid on the findings. While there are no ad breaks in Mann Ki Baat, the programme does get sponsorship and earns revenue for both AIR and Doordarshan. An RTI reply shared by BJP supporter and Modi fan Rishi Bagree, who calls himself “an honest tax-paying citizen”, claimed that the advertising spend was Rs 8 crore, while the revenue earned was Rs 30-odd crore over eight years.
Most of the revenue came from government departments and public sector undertakings (PSUs). The list of 38 sponsors is said to include the Election Commission of India and the Income Tax Department. A handful of private companies such as Emami, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Fena and Finolex Industries also figured among the advertisers. Conspicuous by their absence are the big daddies from the private sector, in particular the Ambanis and the Adanis.
If indeed the radio show was as big a hit as the government wants us to believe, why is the advertisement revenue so meagre, asked a scathing Ravish Kumar on his YouTube channel. The annual revenue earned has generally hovered between Rs 1 crore and Rs 2 crore, barring the years 2016–17 and 2017–18, when the figures were Rs 5 crore and Rs 10 crore respectively.
Be that as it may, for the 100th episode, nothing was left to chance. Aware of dwindling listenership, in the run-up to the ‘big day’, AIR was airing special morning programmes featuring vignettes from earlier episodes. A special 100-rupee coin was minted to mark the occasion. Advisories went out all across the globe: gather the crowds and give us the proof, the government demanded of the people. (And, it would seem, the people complied.) Did they have a choice? ‘Advisories’, which the current government has a penchant for, seems euphemistic— ‘diktats’ being more like it.
On April 24, the I&B ministry sent an ‘advisory’ to all television news channels and community radio stations to broadcast MKB on their platforms. As Meetu Jain reported in The Wire, the advisory directed community radio stations to ‘send a one-minute audio clip of the broadcast consisting of 25 seconds of the initial portion broadcast and 25 seconds of [the] last portion, appending the name of the community radio station, immediately after completion of the broadcast’.
The advisory also insisted on additional proof by way of photographic evidence of the radio station celebrating the event. ‘A photo of the community listening to the broadcast’ was required to be sent to the ministry.
Community radio operators clearly had no option but to broadcast the programme (the irony is devastating given the government’s ban on political news). Clearly, the radio talk showcasing the success of government schemes, building public opinion and boosting the PM’s image is neither news nor politics. Many radio operators say that their radio stations are increasingly being treated as platforms for government propaganda. Not for the first time either. Back in 2015, an advisory had asked the radio stations (that were already airing Mann ki Baat) to send tapes of their eight-hour daily programming in a bid to vet the content.
On 24 October 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his debut on AIR with MKB, a communique from the information and broadcasting ministry requested private radio and television channels to cooperate in airing the 30-minute programme.
While some channels expressed apprehension at the telecast of MKB clashing with regular prime-time programmes and the loss of revenue that would entail, they still went along. Everyone wanted to cooperate—PM Modi had just been elected a few months earlier. Some of the more courageous channels even took the decision (after consulting the ministry) to broadcast the programme later, rather than live.
That first telecast was on the occasion of Vijaya Dashami. PM Modi wished everyone and talked about cleanliness, the use of khadi and how the nation belongs to everyone. (Incidentally, it was also the first time that Doordarshan ran a programme on the RSS’s Vijaya Dashami celebrations.) A call from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) asking Jawhar Sircar, CEO, Prasar Bharati Corporation, to be present during the shoot was politely turned down. Sircar, who is now with the Trinamool Congress and a Rajya Sabha MP said, “I was not a cameraman or a sound engineer. So, I declined.”
AIR officials suggested the Prime Minister adopt a soft conversational tone, rather than the whipping-crowds-into-a-frenzy tone. The desired effect was to sound like the genial family patriarch talking to his relatives. These were early days and there was excitement pulsing through the airwaves. The largest network in the world—with over 400 radio stations, covering 19 per cent of the population, with 92 per cent reach through transmitters dotting the length and breadth of the country! What better platform could there be for the PM to pour his heart out and listen to the chosen few?
It was decided by the PMO to give the programme a sheen of conviviality. Views from the public were sought on the mygov.in platform. Right from the start, the ‘issues’, largely apolitical, were cherry-picked.
Meanwhile, officials were concerned about more pecuniary matters. The decision to air the programme on Sundays would cost them dearly, with the weekend being prime time for both AIR and Doordarshan, when advertisement slots are much in demand. But who could demur? This was the Prime Minister’s programme. To save the day, the moment and the hour, government departments (for social welfare and PSUs) stepped in as potential advertisers. As Sircar put it, “The attitude of the government to squeeze PSUs before privatising them… has never changed.”
For those in the dark, this is how the show gets made: A dedicated team of six is on the job to record PM Modi’s address to the nation. The team transcribes the talk and sends the transcripts to the PMO. After approval, it is sent to the Press Information Bureau for dissemination. It is translated into 23 Indian languages and 29 dialects. The External Services Division of AIR translates the text into French and Mandarin (it’s anyone’s guess who’s tuning in from those parts). The team keeps a close watch on the letters received after each address and marks them to the PMO. All letters are sent to the Prime Minister. In addition, AIR also advertises the show every day, once every two hours, asking listeners to send in their suggestions.
So far, so good. In mid-2015, though, there was a hiccup. An RTI request revealed that MKB-related letters to Post Box No. 111, All India Radio, were on the wane. The information sought was solely from AIR and did not count online responses. The reply revealed that on 14 December 2014, Mann Ki Baat was a big draw, with 5,972 letters being received. On 27 January 2015, when the then US President Barack Obama and PM Modi took the mike—the first time an American president and an Indian prime minister had done so in AIR’s history—there was a surge of interest, and 4,819 letters were received for that broadcast.
These highs were followed by lows. The Kargil Divas address on 26 July 2015 received a mere 993 letters. Most of them were from Uttar Pradesh. PM Modi’s home state Gujarat had not tuned in so enthusiastically.
A few months into this much-touted programme, the euphoria had already died down.