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The Rediff Special/Venu Menon

Ask the Chief Minister!

Kerala Chief Minister E K Nayanar often comes across as a comic figure in the print media. But on television he projects a vastly different persona.

The Malayalam satellite channel Asianet introduced a weekly half-hour phone-in programme featuring the chief minister interacting live with callers from the state and outside on a broad range of contemporary issues. The first episode was telecast on September 14 and Nayanar became an instant hit. Ten episodes later, Ask the chief minister ranks as the channel's most popular programme.

It shows a Nayanar who is far from the caricature that newspapers readers have learned to expect. He comes across as a sober, perceptive and quick-witted communicator who conveys an authentic concern for the people. The result is that he has gained the distinction of being the only chief minister in the country to run a mass contact programme that reaches out to the widest audience of common citizens.

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu is credited with setting off the trend, but his preferred mode of communication is the laptop computer, which puts the common man at a disadvantage. Nayanar, on the other hand, is accessible for the price of a local call.

According to the mobile phone company that monitors the calls, around 27,000 call attempts are made during each episode, of which barely 30 calls get through.

The lively public response, stems from a fascination with the man rather than the office of chief minister. Notes Paul Zacharia, the novelist who is studio head at Asianet: "Nayanar is a natural communicator who speaks to the common man at his level. He is spontaneous and has a sense of humour. Nobody thinks he is a clown except some people in the print media."

Still, it was with some trepidation that the channel's programme managers first approached Nayanar. Recalls Neelam, Asianet chief news editor: "Initially, we thought we would have to stagemanage calls so that the programme would not flop. We asked our bureaus to keep the staff on hand. But it wasn't necessary. The calls came flooding in from the word go."

The programme is here to stay, and will be continued with other chief ministers in the future. Given his record of intemperate statements, Nayanar seemed the unlikeliest candidate to pull off a major public relations triumph of this kind. And yet, the CM's on-screen persona conveys the restraint and empathy of someone genuinely committed to the public weal. He looks and sounds different from the archetypal 'phony' politician.

There are moments of high drama in the interface with the public. A woman caller from Kottayam pleads with the chief minister to save her from being evicted from her plot of land by church authorities intent on constructing a road through it. Nayanar tells her to send him a petition. She insists on seeing him. He says okay, come tomorrow. She travels to Thiruvananthapuram. The CM's office issues a direction to the local administration secretary. The eviction bid is stalled.

A retired high school teacher from Kozhikode has not received her pension. For two years she has pursued the matter with the authorities to no avail. She sobs as she pleads for the chief minister's intervention. Nayanar notes her address. His office gets in touch with the officials concerned.

The programme has emerged as a forum for common people to ventilate their grievances directly to the chief minister. There are no officials or private secretaries to negotiate or circumvent, there is no one to stop you at the door. Nayanar has his ear to the phone, and hopefully he has an answer to your problem.

This is the programme's special appeal to the common man. It offers him an opportunity to cut through the red tape and gain access to the key problem-solver in the state administration. It offers him the critical intervention of the chief minister and its catalytic effect on settling longstanding issues.

Nayanar has clearly sensed the populist potential of his television role as benefactor of the underdog. It is easy to see that behind the sincerity of purpose is a definite effort at projecting a laundered image of himself that sharply departs from past habits. He has kind words for political opponents like K Karunakaran and A K Antony, abstains from hurling innuendos at party rival V S Achutanandan and refrains from ridiculing the young upcoming phalanx of Communist Party of India-Marxist leaders like Thiruvananthapuram Mayor S Sivankutty. Nayanar has spruced up his act with telling effect.

In the process, he has altered the ground rules of satellite television. The programme occupies the least favoured current affairs slot, which commands nether prime time nor sponsors. Despite this and television's tilt towards entertainment, the phone-in programme has a higher popularity rating than anything Asianet has to offer.

The calls that pour in are a mix of individual grievances and contemporary issues. The dominant topics are corruption, crime against women, power scarcity, price rise and the mosquito menace in Cochin. The bulk of the callers belong to the middle and lower-middle class. Many of the callers are from the Gulf states. Intellectuals and the academic community are conspicuous non-participants.

By and large, the calls are friendly but critical. Mostly Nayanar gets the better of the exchanges, emerging as a master of repartee. His conversations are spiced with witty asides. At 79, he is rediscovering the joy of talking on the telephone.

The Rediff Special

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