Media in Religion and Politics

The role of popular media in furthering the politics of the day cannot possibly be underestimated. Robin Jeffrey analyses the role that technology has played in Indian elections historically and explores the potential of new digital media powered by 4G enabled phones in elections today. 

New ways of communication—new media—disrupt conventional means of communication. They force long-accepted practices to change. Understanding both the technology and the potential of such new media give early adopters—“first movers”—an initial advantage in spreading their messages, changing attitudes and achieving results.

In the past, we saw such processes working slowly, both in matters of religion and politics, but in the last years of the 20th century, changes were far more rapid. The photocopier and the fax machine, technologies sometimes credited with undermining the Soviet Union, are now seen as obsolete technologies. 

The spread of printing technology in India provides a historical example. Gutenberg-style printing presses became fairly readily available in Kolkata and a few other port cities from the late 18th century. European missionaries used them in their attempts to win converts. But transporting a heavy metal press “up-country”—and bringing one to India—was difficult and expensive until the railways, steamships, and the Suez Canal (an amusing account of taking a press from Kolkata to Meerut in the early 1850s illustrates this).1 By the 1870s, affordable, serviceable printing presses were becoming readily available throughout India, and the printing of pamphlets and newspapers was troubling enough for British governments to pass the short-lived, Vernacular Press Act of 1878. From the 1890s, Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s fame and persecution arose from his writings in his Pune-based weekly newspapers, Kesari in Marathi and Mahratta in English. M K Gandhi’s Young India and Navajivan had circulations of more than 40,000—huge for their time in the 1920s.

The point of this historical expedition lies in two things. First, it underlines the rapidity of media change in our time. Very little has changed in media technologies in India between Tilak’s time and the early 1980s, when offset presses and computer typesetting of Indian scripts transformed the potential of printing in Indian languages. Second, print-on-paper technology, which required relatively high levels of literacy, could barely be called a “mass” medium. Radio was expensive, needed electricity, and was controlled by the government, while movies were closely censored. Attempts to control both were hangovers from the colonial regime that governments in independent India found convenient.  

Innovations in Media from the 1970s

Two media innovations began to spread from the 1970s. Both were relatively cheap, and neither required literacy. These were the transistor radio, including shortwave, and the cassette tape recorder (Manuel 1993). The cassette recorder achieved great popularity for its ability to record and play music, including of course bhajans and other hymns. Perhaps, the most notorious politico-religious use of the cassette recorder lay in the campaigns of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and the Khalistan agenda from the late 1970s. The popularity of the young preacher and the novelty of cheap tape recorders in prosperous Punjab gave added momentum to a movement that had various backers and sources (Jeffrey 1994). The “first-mover” phenomenon played a part, along with the fact that this technology was decentralised and largely beyond the control of government. 

By the early 1980s, the video cassette became widely available, bringing with it the power of the visual. Video cassettes brought by travellers coming from outside India played a part in whipping up animosity and violence,  following Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984. Literacy was no longer necessary to receive a message; pictures told stories, even if they can never have been “the complete picture.”

At this point, the pace of media change accelerated rapidly. Doordarshan, from the 1980s, became a government-controlled money spinner, once it began accepting advertisements. Colour television, introduced for the Asian Games of 1982, added to the attraction of television, ownership of televisions grew, and the serials of the Ramayana (1987–88) and Mahabharata (1988–90) became must-see Sunday events for three years. They have been credited with propelling L K Advani’s rath yatras and providing momentum for the Ayodhya temple movement and the destruction of the Babri Masjid (Rajagopal 2001). If we were looking for connections between media innovation and religion and politics, the television serials and Advani’s “chariot processions” may provide that link.

The opening of space for free-to-air and cable television channels in the 1990s transformed the choices for viewers and the possibilities for people with ideas, products and reputations to promote. By the mid-1990s, hundreds of television channels were available, followed by satellite  news channels, which had to manage a complex maze of government regulation but still managed to provide livelier news coverage than the government’s Doordarshan. Religion, on the other hand, had no such problem, and today’s two major religious channels, Sanskar and Aastha, began in 2000. Broadcast television was nevertheless a centralised medium: the originator of a programme invested money, for whatever reason, to transmit words and pictures to large numbers (the originator hoped) of passive recipients (Mehta 2015).

The cheap mobile phone disrupted all that (Doron and Jeffrey 2013). In 2005, mobile phone connections exceeded landline connections for the first time—about 52 million to 44 million. This was second-generation digital technology (2G), capable of voice calls and text messages and, as it developed, capable of taking pictures, recording and playing sound, and receiving brief moving images also. 

In a country where the telephone had been a rare and exotic item, a bulky black monster, often out of order and available only to important people, the effective use of the 2G phone for politics was a puzzle that required a solution. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dallied with it in the 2004 national election campaign when the incumbent prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, used robo-calls to ring mobile numbers to play a recorded message to the recipients. The experience indicated that one-way communication was not the way to use this cheap, two-way technology effectively. Recipients seemed to be mystified and annoyed, rather than impressed. To make phones effective for motivating their users required tactical human intervention as well as technology. 

Rapidly Changing Media and Human Agency

Democratic politics in every country has religious dimensions. In the North Atlantic world, Christian groups of one kind or another have sought to influence voters, election outcomes and political processes, for as long as there have been elections. Tilak celebrated Maharashtra’s Ganpati festivals and Gandhi was a Mahatma. The first Indian election in which digital technology, via the 2G phone, played a part owed its outcome to an unexpected “religious” alliance, facilitated by technology but requiring relentless human interaction. This was the Uttar Pradesh (UP) state election of 2007, won with a surprising overall majority by the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and its leader, Mayawati, a Dalit woman.

The story illustrates the advantages in a fast-changing media world of early, appropriate use of a new technology when it is coupled with motivated human agency (Jeffrey and Doron 2012). The BSP was, and is, a party based on Dalit support. Its founder Kanshi Ram (1934–2006) spent years building the All India Backward (Scheduled Caste [SC], Scheduled Tribe [ST], and Other Backward Classes [OBC]) and Minority Communities Employees’ Federation  (BAMCEF), an attempt to build a broad alliance of groups suffering discrimination. The ultimate aim was a political organisation capable of winning power and thereby attacking social disadvantage. In its formative years, Kanshi Ram and BAMCEF loyalists could be photographed on Sundays, riding bicycles in procession to the countryside to hold meetings and spread the message of justice for the socially oppressed.

As the “employees’ federation” in the organisation’s title indicated, its core strength rested on lower-level government servants, especially in Indian Posts and Telegraph (IP&T), which also controlled the only landline telephone system. As 2G technology arrived, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) was created in 2000 to act as the government provider of mobile telephony. Significant numbers of BAMCEF members were absorbed into the organisation. The result was that a crop of activists belonging to the oppressed sections of society, got early access to mobile telephony and its possibilities. Some employees used mobile phones as part of their work; they in turn instructed BAMCEF colleagues. By 2007, when the UP election was due, India had 140 million mobile phone subscribers (and only 40 million on landline), and BAMCEF activists across UP had added mobile phones to their means of communication. Phones were a powerful supplement to bicycles.

The 2007 UP election produced what seemed an unlikely electoral alliance: the supporters of the BSP/BAMCEF were joined by a large segment of Brahmin voters. In crude numbers, UP’s social arithmetic meant that an electoral alliance of SCs (about 21%) and Brahmins (about 12%) might corral a third of voters; often enough to win in multi-cornered, first-past-the-post elections. A section of Brahmin leaders, dissatisfied with previous UP governments, worked with the BSP to devise a strategy to sell the idea that an SC–Brahmin alliance would provide governance that would benefit both groups. 

Such strategic voting was sold to voters across the state through scores of meetings in which Dalit and Brahmin workers explained the virtues of this voting tactic to audiences in towns and villages. The arrangements for these meetings, plus the unrelenting and crucial follow-ups, were made possible by a pyramid structure of coordination and the extensive use of mobile phones. The result brought the BSP to power with 206 seats in a house of 403 and 30% of the vote (Election Commission of India 2007). Address books with phone numbers were as important as the electoral roll itself.

The 2007 election illustrated two principles that are firmly based in a world of rapid technological change. The first is that those who first pick up the potential of a new technology benefit disproportionately. The second is that the technology alone is not enough: it requires dedicated foot-soldiers to guide the technology and use it to enable person-to-person interaction. Receivers of messages may also become—or have the illusion of being—providers. 

When the next UP election came in 2012, India had 900 million mobile phone subscribers, and every political party sought to connect with supporters, undecided voters and its own cadres. The BSP had squandered its years in office, BAMCEF zealots had drifted away and the energy and alliances of 2007 had vanished. The BSP won 26% of the vote and only 80 seats. Akhilesh Yadav, leader of the winning Samajwadi Party, was pictured on the cover of India Today riding a bicycle while talking on his mobile phone (Sahgal 2012).2

In terms of politics, every Indian election, since 2012, has involved attempts to exploit new technology for electoral ends. Each occasion appears to reinforce the proposition that technology and dedicated workers make a winning combination, but technology without the workers is a cannon without gunpowder.

In considering these questions of media, politics and religion, elections are only one element of the processes going on throughout society in South Asia. A more difficult element to quantify is the effect of digital media on religious practices and beliefs. An essay by Mubashar Hasan, a Bangladeshi scholar at the University of Oslo, highlighted the way in which the fundamental idea of the ummah, a worldwide nationhood of Muslims, was translated into a significant concept for many Bangladeshi Muslims through the internet (Hasan 2014). Daily communication, as participants in sharing religious materials with other Muslims around the world, concretised a concept—the ummah—that once was vague and rarely thought of.

In India, the power of the visual capacity of 4G phones, now the favoured instrument for 600 million broadband subscribers,3 has enhanced the presence and influence of saffron-clad swamis. When the feature phone, with the capacity to play music and view short videos, became affordable in India in about 2010, it became possible to promote products and personalities with sounds and images. Literacy was not necessary. It is probably not a coincidence that Patanjali Ayurved, the personal-grooming and health-related product manufacturer of Baba Ramdev, was incorporated in 2006, six years after the major religious television channels began and the same year mobile phone subscribers reached 90 million, double the number of landlines. Today, 200 million of India’s 300 million households are estimated to have television sets (Choudhury 2018), and product endorsements from religious personalities are regular features. Patanjali products, making much of organic, local herbs, now threaten the long-time dominance of Colgate-Palmolive and Hindustan Lever. The combination of religion, media and commerce was tidily illustrated when Colgate-Palmolive’s senior vice president John Faucher said that “it gave away 30 million samples of Vedshakti [its new herbal toothpaste] at the Kumbh Mela festival in India to drive penetration”—all part of an effort to combat the challenge of Patanjali’s Dant Kanti brand (Malviya 2019). To raise a small-time local product to challenge multinational brands required a spiritual respect, communicated widely (and cheaply) in its formative stages by cheap, mass-communication devices.

In politics, the general elections of 2014 and 2019 again showed the power of media and religion combined with human agency—and the changes that render some technologies quickly passé. Prashant Jha has described at length the digital media teams that Narendra Modi and the BJP deployed in 2014 (Jha 2017). One of the most effective devices in north India for gathering and impressing crowds during the campaign were the hundred or more vans, which were able to reach even remote corners and transmit a hologram of Modi speaking live from his Ahmedabad headquarters. Proving an immense novelty and attraction, such events were preceded and followed by constant messaging to party cadres to promote the event and reinforce the messages afterwards. 

By the election of 2019, however, WhatsApp and Instagram had replaced the hologram vans as the key innovations of the campaign. Capable of engaging mass attention, they could be used to get into the lives and influence the beliefs of tens of millions. But to maximise the power of these devices required war rooms of monitors and technologists to tailor messages and respond to constant flows of news, comment and other digital traffic. In addition, they provided ways of arming BJP and RSS workers with content to deploy in their own localities. The most sought-after speaker by local workers seeking to shore up the BJP vote was the religious personality who owed his notoriety and political elevation to visual media, Yogi Adityanath, chief minister of UP.4

The Use of Digital Media to Mislead the Public

Two recent publications illustrate how techniques of today’s digital media have the ready capacity to overwhelm and mislead. Rumours and lies have always been part of human experience, but today, millions can receive, enhance and transmit stories and images which recipients have no easy means of validating but which reinforce their fears, hopes and beliefs. 

“Source Hacking,” a report by two American scholars of media, identifies four techniques which make the digital world a playground for those who wish to spread demonstrable falsehoods in plausible, attractive packages that encourage further dissemination (Donovan and Friedberg 2019). They call their four categories:

  1. viral sloganeering, in which provocative assertions are dressed up respectably and pushed into social and mainstream media for comment; 
  2. leak forgery, where a document is plausibly forged and then leaked into social and mainstream media; 
  3. evidence collages, in which scraps of information are consolidated, often into visual form, to create a never-intended representation; and 
  4. keyword squatting, where accounts or hashtags of genuine groups are closely mimicked by opponents to distribute materials that undermine or ridicule the genuine organisation.

All four varieties have surfaced in the past few years in India, usually with political intent.
The categories used in Source Hacking help to understand the way in which the media world of 2019 can be worked to distort, create and influence beliefs and practices.
India Misinformed: The True Story, a book written by a team that runs an Indian fact-checking site,5 compiles more than 80 examples of digital materials created or manipulated to serve a specific cause or undermine opponents. Many examples are illustrated with screen grabs of the impugned images (Sinha, Shaikh and Siddharth 2019). A few examples capture the techniques and suggest their likely effectiveness in influencing busy, on-the-run consumers, who may have time to re-send the messages to their own circles but not the time to check their authenticity.
Forgery: Photoshop makes it easy to change pictures. A Getty image of Rahul Gandhi counting his money after demonetisation in 2016, became a picture of Rahul Gandhi looking at a sexy woman on a mobile phone (Sinha, Shaikh and Siddharth 2019: 83-4). The rape of a child in Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh in June 2018 enabled a photo of a Muslim march in support of the child, and calling for quick trial and punishment, to be portrayed as a march calling for the release of the accused. A photo was cropped and text on a sign carried by a marcher was removed and substituted (Sinha, Shaikh and Siddharth 2019: 30-2).
Sloganeering: In 2015, an innocent photo of dignitaries at the Republic Day showed Vice President Hamid Ansari not saluting at a march-past of the flag. The photo, with comment, got wide dissemination as an example of a disloyal Muslim. The correct protocol, however, appears to be that when the President is present, only he takes the salute. The President receives the salute as the symbolic head of state: the military salutes the state, not individuals. The photo, however, was widely circulated with provocative, anti-Muslim text.
Squatting: In December 2018, a website mimicking the BBC and calling itself “BBC News Hub,” declared the Congress Party to be the second-most corrupt political party in the world after the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (Sinha, Shaikh and Siddharth 2019: 200-01).6 BBC News Hub was a mischief site with no connection to the BBC. A similar example was @CNNNewsI8, which carried an item in August 2018 that Shashi Tharoor was about to marry a Pakistani journalist in Dubai (Sinha, Shaikh and Siddharth 2019: 206-07).7 Such juicy items quickly get disseminated and can run to tens of thousands of repetitions. Readers had to look carefully to see the number 18 was rendered not with the number 1 but with the capital letter I. It was a carefully manufactured hoax.
Source Hacking has a section of nine episodes in which Narendra Modi, the BJP and RSS have been the targets of digital distortion (Sinha, Shaikh and Siddharth 2019: 71-92). The technology is largely neutral. But to inundate the internet with potent messaging becomes more effective when it is augmented by eager followers. For influencing behaviour, there are no substitutes for retweets, Facebook posts and WhatsApp sends. 

Consumers can, of course, explore the sources for the content they receive and circulate. But few people find time to use Google’s Reverse Image search, or similar software, to try to discover whether a provocative image has been manipulated. The power of the mobile internet to entertain and outrage lies in colour, movement and images. It seldom provokes the “Who told you?” reaction that is often part of face-to-face human conversation.


The pace of media change may slacken. There was a period of about a hundred years between the 1880s and 1980s, when mass media in India did not change a great deal. Print-on-paper had severe limitations, and film and radio were one-way media controlled by the government. Since the 1980s, however, every five or six years have seen the arrival of media technologies that surprise, entertain, inform, misinform and reach tens of millions. For those who study the mobilisation of people for politics or religion, the teasing questions relate to what the next potent innovation may be. Or have we reached a point where “everyone” has access to a 4G phone, and is bored by the constantly changing, internet-derived content?

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