There's much ado about 'symbols' in electoral politics

Theres much ado about symbols in electoral politics

New Delhi, Indian elections, they say, is the statisticians' delight. From the palm-fringed Kerala shores to extreme corners in the wilds of north east to the sun-baked sands of western India, India is drowned in the din of polls to elect a new Lok Sabha. Unlike the present, when heat and dust of electoral battle is reduced to name calling, battle of fake news on social media and unprecedented reprimand of leading politicians and campaigners by the poll panel – the battles of yesteryears were also about 'symbols' and the war cry was definitely more than just symbolic. The new generation voters may not know that the first major symbol to have been 'freezed' by the Election Commission was the 'pair of bullocks', which was used by Congress under Pt Jawaharlal Nehru and also by Indira Gandhi in subsequent polls in 1952, 1957, 1962, 1967 and 1977 polls. The 'cow and the calf' came into the scene and soon it disappeared and then came in the 'hand symbol' for the Congress since 1980 and it has survived.

Earlier to that, the Congress led by Indira Gandhi had split in 1978 and 'cow and the calf' had disappeared. The 'hand symbol' proved lucky for Congress as it swept the 1980 polls and the country's first non-Congress dispensation ran by Janata Party ended. How many of middle aged and young voters today in India – chiefly the net loving citizens – could at once recognise 'Lamp' as the symbol of the Jan Sangh, the precursor of the BJP? Curiously for BJP, its bitter opponent among Congress politicians - Arjun Singh - had approached the EC to freeze the 'Lotus' symbol saying that it was 'misused' during L K Advani's Rath Yatra. An overwhelming size among the electorate may not know that despite the EC ban on use of animals as poll symbols, the mighty Elephant 'survived' and still woos voters in UP (BSP of Mayawati), Assam (AGP), the PMK in Pondicherry and Sikkim Sangam Parishad in Sikkim. The animal and of course the bird lovers had complained that goats, cocks, birds and camels were often 'ill treated', but the king of jungle Lion survived as symbol(s) for Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party in Goa, Hill State People's Democratic Party in Meghalaya and the All India Forward Bloc in West Bengal. In Nagaland, 'Cock or Rooster' used to be a symbol of pride for the regional political force and for decades it remained identified with the regional parties UDF, NNDP and later Nagaland People's Council (NPC). The NPC later merged with a dissident group from Congress and rechristened itself as NPF – its symbol Rooster has been retained. The newly floated NDPP's symbol in the state is 'Globe'. The Bow and Arrow is a popular symbol and Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha all have it in their electoral armoury. The AIADMK in Tamil Nadu and Kerala Congress (M) depend on two leaves and in West Bengal, Trinamool Congress of Mamata Banerjee uses 'grass and leaves' to suggest party's claim of representing the grassroots people.

The Janata parivar's symbol 'Charkha or wheel' also has been in news from time to time due to claims by contestant factions. In 1989-90, Doordarshan had made 'news' when the commercial advertisement of detergent powder 'Wheel' faced restrictions as the 'wheel' was also election symbol of Janata Dal. In 1980 as Congress under Indira Gandhi had returned to power and Janata Party split – the BJP led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L K Advani got the 'Lotus' symbol and Chandra Shekhar group walked away with the 'umbrella'. The 'symbol' politics was with the Left parties as well. The Communist Party of India has split in 1964 with the CPI-Marxists walking away with the symbol 'hammer and sickle' symbolising workforce; the CPI retained the symbol of 'sickle and a sheaf of corn' reflecting agrarian struggle and the fight of the working class. Talk to old timers among politicians, like Kariya Munda of BJP or Sharad Yadav, they say – 'symbols' are particularly crucial for 'illiterate' and simpleton voters as they identify leaders and parties by 'symbols'. In 1999 after the split in Congress, Sharad Pawar's NCP faced this problem in rural Maharashtra where villagers said they would vote for 'Pawar Sahib' but were not sure that his 'symbol' was no longer the hand. In many places, NCP volunteers well wishers and volunteers had to distribute 'clocks' to emphasise what was really their symbols. Interestingly, even in the 21st century and in a country where use of electricity is almost considered one of the basic requirements of life – Lalu Prasad-led RJD election symbol is an old fashioned 'Hurricane Lamp or Lantern'.

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