Coconut, whistle, nail cutter, walking stick, grapes, cot, pressure cooker, bread, toothbrush… What do they have to do with India’s vibrant democracy?
Plenty, says the Election Commission, underlining the importance of identifying political parties and candidates with “election symbols” in a country where a large mass still can’t read names on ballot papers and electronic voting machines.
With polling to pick a new 70-member Delhi assembly only four days away, the capital is awash with billboards and fliers seeking votes in the name of some familiar and many quaint “symbols”.
The outstretched “hand” of the Congress — it is actually the “palm” — and the “lotus” of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are among the best known election symbols. So is the BSP’s “elephant” and the one-year-old Aam Aadmi Party’s “broom”.
But there are many, many more — mostly to do with household implements, including those of daily use. Allotted to the numerous independent candidates and virtually unknown political parties are a slew of symbols that also include slate, hat, autorickshaw, television, hand pump, sewing machine, blackboard, balloon, pen stand, kite, tent et al.
Then there are bungalow, basket containing fruits, hockey and ball, spectacles, gas cylinder, iron, cup and saucer, ladder, clock and scissors. Carrot, cauliflower, cake, school bag, violin, chess board, saw, bucket and calculator are among the rest.
The Rashtriya Ulama Council has a “kettle” as its symbol. The Lok Priya Samaj Party seeks votes for its “walking stick”. The Samata Sangarsh Party has been allotted “candles”.
The “camera” belongs to the Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha. The Kalyankari Jantantrik Party’s symbol is “telephone”. And in a cricket crazy country, the Aadarshwadi Congress Party has chosen a “batsman”.
It all began when newly independent India conducted its first Lok Sabha election in 1952 — a mammoth exercise involving millions, many of whom could not read or write. But they needed to vote too. So the election authorities came up with the idea of identifying every contestant with an election symbol.
Over the decades, some of the better known symbols — the now defunct Bharatiya Jana Sangh’s “lamp” and the old Congress symbol “cow and calf” — have disappeared for good.
“Initially when symbols came into being, it was to help people recognize their parties and candidates,” political analyst G.V.L. Narasimha Rao told IANS.
“So parties chose symbols that either reflected their ideology or their electoral base.”
The Aam Admi Party, for instance, chose the spiky broom – an unusual symbol – to project its resolve to sweep the polity clean of corruption.
While national and state-level recognized political parties have symbols that can’t be used by others, the others get to pick from a mass of “free symbols” prepared by the Election Commission.
At one time, birds — parrots, peacock, dove — were among the more popular symbols. But as complaints poured in that candidates were catching these poor creatures and displaying them while begging for votes, animal lovers got into the act and got these symbols banned.
Are elections symbols still needed, now that a vast majority in cities like Delhi are educated?
Yes, said Rao. “If you go by the 2011 census, five percent of Delhi’s population is still illiterate. So the election symbols are necessary.
“In any case, you cannot have a special law for Delhi and another for the rest of India.”