Sharan: Tell us about your book and the reasons behind authoring it.
Shashi: If you look at the entire gamut of work within 'Mann Ki Baat' that the Honorable Prime Minister has been broadcasting now for more than nine years, what you will see is that he's touched upon a number of themes.
In fact, I have a spreadsheet that I use while analysing the transcripts of 'Mann Ki Baat' as part of the research for this book and I ran out of tabs because I probably never had a spreadsheet which had you know 25, 26 tabs open. So that is the breadth of what he was doing within Mann Ki Baat.
More interestingly within each theme, he's touched upon on so many individuals, so many organisations.
So, that gives you a sense of the length and breadth of Mann Ki Baat and what this book has tried to do is bring out that essence, bring out those stories, those life journeys and it is in a sense a reflection of you know, not only where India stands today, but the trajectory of its development over the next few decades.
Sharan: Give us a little idea about the behind the scenes... you know... when Mann Ki Baat got conceptualised, and how essentially there was a framing of this new political communication model by the government.
Shashi: See, the Prime Minister has always been a digital innovator and an innovator in terms of how he communicates. If you look at his entire political career, he was the first one to embrace digital technology. He was accessible through Twitter. He started live streaming his speeches through YouTube.
I recall there was this Google Hangout in 2012 which is the first time a politician did a Google Hangout and the servers of YouTube in India crashed that day. So, in that sense he has not been shy of experimenting and doing new stuff.
And then once he became Prime Minister and the new government was formed you saw that same volunteer digital platform evolve into MyGov which then became a citizen volunteering platform where citizens were made a part of the governance process.
So, Mann Ki Baat is in a sense part of that same continuum where it has used broadcast technologies to amplify this on a mass scale.
It's not just about one social media platform or one app, but it is to reach the entire length and breadth of India and hence he chose radio as the oldest of communication medium because of its wide geographical reach.
In fact, he talks about it in one of the episodes of Mann Ki Baat, where he was reflecting on his career as the BJP's general secretary. He referred to an incident that occurred while traveling in Himachal.
He happened to stop at a roadside tea stall and heard some breaking news on radio. It struck him how important radio is a medium continues to be to reach the far corners, remote corners of India, even today.
Sharan: An IIM study concluded that almost a billion people are aware of Mann Ki Baat. Is there a particular demographic that the programme aims to reach out to?
Shashi: If you look at the Prime Minister's target audience, it is everyone. This is reflected in the content of Mann Ki Baat. He talks about stargazing, he talks about exam anxiety, he talks about math, he talks about science.
He clearly has the children, the younger audience, the students in his mind. Then, he talks of startups, he talks about sports, you know so young adults. And then he then goes into topics which are of greater relevance to the larger society — be it farming, be it water conservation.
Then he also talks of culture in a big way, be it music, be it literature, quoting ancient slokas, quoting various poets across different languages of India. So, it's an entire spectrum of age groups that are within his target.
So when you talk about the billion figure, it's really the reach which is the cumulative reach of radio. But radio is not just his primary broadcast. Mann Ki Baat is translated across more than 40 languages and dialects of India, and several foreign languages as well.
That's just the radio we are speaking of. It's worth noting that this is the first visual radio programme because it's not just a monologue in audio, it has visuals and graphics.
As we observed during the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, more than 120 news channels on television were carrying a live broadcast of Mann Ki Baat. Through the visual medium, we are also receiving a lot of secondary and tertiary audience.
If you include digital platforms like YouTube, Narendra Modi app and smart devices like Alexa, it's not surprising if the cumulative number comes up to a billion or so. This reach is achieved through different modes of transmission.
Obviously, to achieve such an enormous amount of reach, it also has to be translated into multiple languages, and surprisingly, these are not just Indian languages, which are about 22.
It is also translated into 11 different foreign languages including Mandarin, Swahili and a few other languages. This also includes a large number of dialects. If you go to the tribal districts of Chhattisgarh or Jharkhand, or the seven states of the North East, you are talking of a much wider linguistic diversity.
All India Radio (AIR) broadcasts the programme using the local dialects (which are more than forty).
Sharan: Do we have any strategic benefits from airing the programme in foreign languages?
Shashi: All India Radio has a long history of operating external services. They started with shortwave around the Second World War and that continues today in several languages. We have, of course, moved beyond shortwave radio today.
You have an app called News on AIR which has more than 200 live streams. It includes all of these external foreign language live streams of All India Radio. And, more interestingly, in India, we also have a satellite platform called Free Dish.
The beauty of Free Dish is that it's free to air, it's non-encrypted and its footprint spills over India's borders.
People in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh including the Tibetan regions controlled by China can receive these signals. Hence, you have this wide footprint where the content in all these languages can be heard.
Sharan: Tell us a little bit more about the chapterisation of the book.
Shashi: So, let me explain the chapter wise structure of the book which is very thematic. So, you have a chapter which is focused on India's federalism and how Mann Ki Baat has played a very unifying role in bringing together the geographical diversity, the political diversity and the linguistic diversity of India.
Then there is a chapter focused on nationalism. How nationalism has been a very important continuous theme within Mann Ki Baat to motivate and engage the armed forces, our men and women in uniform to continue that sentiment of patriotism through these nine years where various milestones were hit.
Be it commemorating the Quit India Movement, commemorating the 75 years of independence, Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav and so on. Also, the chapter focuses on the very big areas which have come to define PM Modi's tenure which is Swachh Bharat's cleanliness, waste to wealth, environmental conservation, water conservation etc.
With a specific emphasis on what he calls Jan Bhagidari where people have been made a part of the process.
Leveraging the power of communities, the power of individuals, their initiatives and tying it to that larger goal. Then the book also looks at how he has weaved culture to drive a lot of these initiatives.
Especially with festivals where every festival has a certain significance. Be it Diwali or Rakshabandhan, he has used the essence, the motive appeal of each of these festivals to put his initiatives within the context.
Then you have a very important chapter which looks at how he has invoked ancient metaphors to make them relevant to the modern challenges and modern problems.
It goes back to science, ancient math, how water conservation was so important in our ancient culture. So he has looked at a very wide body of sources, ancient sources to make his point.
In one more chapter, I mention the incidents where PM Modi engaged with global leaders like former US president Barack Obama on Mann Ki Baat. He also mentions the former Kenyan Prime Minister whose daughter was in India for Ayurvedic treatment and how her experience became a story in Africa around the potential of Ayush and so on.
Sharan: Do you think TV as a medium or even radio for that matter is relevant today?
Shashi: That's a great question. In fact, I think that's a debate that's perhaps happening the world over on what is the future of broadcasting. For example, the current head of the BBC has gone on record sometime back saying that they envision a future for BBC without broadcasting.
I don't know what the BBC would be without broadcasting. It would just be another British company for all you know. So, I don't see that the relevance of broadcasting is going to reduce.
I think COVID-19 was a great moment which showed us why television and broadcast media will continue to be very important. The first was of course for authentic news, news which is very credible.
In fact, there were two studies done by the Reuters Institute for Journalism at the Oxford University. Both those studies in consecutive years found that DD News and AIR News were the most trustworthy when it came to news in India.
I think that is a very important significant data point which tells us that at the time of crisis, at a time when all the other lights go out, people will turn to the public broadcaster for information.
The second reason, again during COVID-19, we saw that when schools were shut and students started doing online classes, the large part of India which was left out, and the only way those children could get any education was through television, through the educational channels.
The third reason why it will continue to be important, especially for an open democracy like India, is that we cannot be held hostage to algorithms and large tech platforms.
If you look at what has happened in India over the years, gradually we have disintermediated gatekeepers of information, gatekeepers of information, people who control opinions, people who control news. It started with live streaming on YouTube, it started with directly communicating through Twitter.
Sharan: Give us a little behind-the-scenes idea about when there were tense moments during the recording of Mann Ki Baat.
Shashi: If you look at the entire spectrum of emotions within Mann Ki Baat, it's largely positive, largely happy moments. But then there are those rare moments where he also expressed anger, and one of them was the Pulwama attack after that, and the surgical strikes that were conducted, where you see anger as an emotion making its appearance.
So in that sense, you know, broadcasting is all about this spectrum of emotions and reaching out to the citizens. And there will be different moments. There will be difficult moments, there will be happy moments.
Shashi Shekar Vempati is ex-CEO, Prasar Bharti.
Sharan Setty is an Associate Editor at Swarajya.
Note: This article contains only the excerpts from the recorded interview. Please watch the full interview here.
Sharan Setty (Sharan K A) is an Associate Editor at Swarajya. He tweets at @sharansetty2.
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