India celebrates 100th episode of PM Modi’s radio show: One-way communication tool or redefining outreach?

India’s federal government yesterday celebrated 100 episodes of prime minister Narendra Modi’s flagship radio programme, hailing it as a platform that has strengthened the country’s democracy.

Mann Ki Baat (Point of View) was launched on 3 October 2014, just months after Mr Modi won his first general election in a sweeping victory that brought his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power, ending almost seven decades of the Indian National Congress rule.

The 30-minute radio show is broadcast on the last Sunday of every month on state broadcaster All India Radio and Doordarshan.

In a press release on Thursday, India’s federal culture ministry described Mann Ki Baat as the prime minister’s “brainchild”. Ahead of the 100th episode yesterday, India’s federal government ministries and ministers announced that the show will be a “historic moment”.

Culture secretary Govind Mohan said that the centenary episode will be marked with projection shows at monuments, including Red Fort and Gateway of India, an art exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi and the publication of comic books about the heroes mentioned by the leader in his addresses.

The address was broadcast live yesterday at the United Nations headquarters in New York and was also shown live at the Indian high commission in London.

As a part of its mega outreach programme, the show was also broadcast live by state broadcaster Doordarshan across several Raj Bhavans (governor houses) across the country.

Senior BJP leaders and federal ministers listened to the show at various places, including their constituencies with people in a mega exercise of connecting with the public.

Federal external affairs minister S Jaishankar tuned in to the programme live with the diaspora in New Jersey.

Earlier, the BJP had said nearly 400,000 venues would be set up for people to listen to the prime minister’s broadcast.

In his recorded address celebrating the centenary episode of the programme, Mr Modi said that the platform had provided him with a solution to “connect with the common man”.

“When I was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, it was natural to meet and interact with the common people there… but after coming to Delhi in 2014, I found that life here was very different. In the initial days, there was an emptiness.

“I did not leave my home just to find one day it would be difficult to contact the people of my own country. The very countrymen who are my everything… I could not live separated from them,” he was quoted as saying by The Indian Express.

Mann Ki Baat gave me a solution to this challenge, a way to connect with the common man,” he said, adding that he reads thousands of messages from the people of the country, and just does not feel that he is even a little far from them. “Mann Ki Baat has become a spiritual journey of my being,” he said.

The centenary episode included a telephonic conversation with some people who were featured earlier on the broadcast for their unique initiatives.

Federal home minister Amit Shah watched the broadcast with other leaders in India’s financial capital Mumbai.

“Platforming dialogues on different regions, languages and dialects, he strengthens India’s social democracy,” he said in a tweet.

While the federal government and ruling party members hailed the radio show, the opposition accused it of ignoring important issues.

In a statement, Congress MP Jairam Ramesh called the address “Maun (silent) ki Baat”.

“The 100th day of Mann ki Baat is being heralded with great fanfare,” he said on Twitter.

“But it is Maun ki Baat on crucial issues like China, Adani, increasing economic inequalities, price rise of essential commodities, terror attacks in J&K, insults to women wrestlers, non-fulfilment of promises made to farmer organisations, corruption in so-called double-engine state governments like Karnataka, conmen with close links to BJP, etc.”

The opposition in India has demanded parliament discussions and a joint parliamentary committee probe on Indian billionaire Gautam Adani and allegations of stock market manipulations against him and questioned Mr Modi’s closeness to him.

The opposition has also questioned the prime minister for not addressing India’s border dispute with China as well his silence on the ongoing wrestlers’ protest in Delhi against sexual harassment allegations levied against the wrestling body chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, a BJP MP.

Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra also asked the prime minister to explain the government’s inaction on Mr Singh and the investigation into firms linked to Adani by India’s market regulator on Mann Ki Baat.

Despite the media fanfare by the BJP government, a study titled “Media in India: Access, Practices, Concerns and Effects” published by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) released in November last year found that at least three-fifths of the Indian population has never listened to the PM’s radio address.

Observers say that while Mann Ki Baat has redefined communication between a leader and the citizens, it has also ushered in an era of “one-way communication”.

“What PM Modi has done is usher in a phase of one-way communication between the leader and the people. This allows him to control the political narrative,” senior journalist Pamela Philipose tells The Independent.

Sandeep Shastri, a political analyst says that Mann Ki Baat has been a “useful” platform for communication by the prime minister.

“What is the quantum of traction can be a matter of debate and analysis. But the fact that it did reach out to a significant chunk of people is important.”

Mr Modi has been criticised for not holding a single press conference in almost a decade of being in power.

India has dropped eight places to 150 out of 180 countries, in the 2022 Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders.

Earlier this year, the BBC offices in New Delhi and Mumbai were raided by income tax authorities amid a growing crackdown on critical media voices. Other media outlets and opposition leaders critical of the government have also faced state action in the form of tax raids.

Last year, the US state department’s annual report on international religious freedom said religious minorities in India faced intimidation throughout 2021.

“Of course, all politicians want to control the political narrative but Prime Minister Modi is perhaps India’s first major politician to actually understand media flows in a granular way. The attempt at all times is to inundate the public sphere with information flowing directly from the Prime Minister’s Office, even as every effort is made to control information from independent bodies that are detrimental to his image and purpose,” Ms Philipose says.

Mann ki Baat has proved to be very useful for this purpose. It keeps up the claim that he is communicating with the ordinary Indian and is very keen to do so, even as it ensures that only messages that suit the political establishment get across.

“For instance, although it is claimed that he has spoken over 306 times on women’s empowerment on Mann Ki Baat, he has not as yet said a single word about the ongoing wrestlers’ protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi against a powerful member of parliament of the ruling party who is accused of being a sexual predator.

Mr Shastri says that each form of communication that a leader chooses has its advantages and disadvantages.

“Each leader has their own approach to reaching out to voters. This prime minister believes that Mann ki Baat is the way he would like to communicate.

“A press conference, one could argue, does not represent the voice of the people in many ways. Some leaders have preferred not to address the people through the press. This prime minister believes he would not like to communicate in this form.

“Yes there have been leaders who have had open communication and allowed questions, dialogues and press conferences and others have found other paths and they find that favourable to them and their supporters believe that is the path to be taken and let’s give them the credit for it,” he says.