EYE SPY: Voting visuals
Cauliflower, nail clipper, necktie and other intriguing election symbols
Until last year we were aware that the humble broom could exhibit magical powers only when wielded by witches. But then came Arvind Kejriwal and suddenly the jhadoo became a metaphor mightier than the sword, though its magic may have fizzled out a bit of late. Previously appearing as no. 14 on the Election Commission of India’s (EC) list of free symbols, the broom has now been crossed out, with “NOT A FREE SYMBOL NOW” inscribed in all caps by hand over it.
If you are looking to run in the elections as an independent candidate, or start your own party at some point, you have, however, the option of choosing from a range of other stock images to represent your party or yourself. The EC has the ultimate authority to veto or approve it. Sometimes its allocations are baffling. Former banker Meera Sanyal, who ran from a south Bombay constituency as an independent in 2009, had the figure of a batsman to represent her. But then, if you think that’s odd, wait till you’ve had a look at some of the other available options.
A cake (a slice missing from it), a cauliflower, a nail clipper (“nail cutter”, if you go by the descriptor in the document), a necktie—the visuals are wide and just as wild. In a “List of new Free Symbols recently approved by the Commission” you may also find chappals, “Pen Nib with Seven Rays” and “Green Chilli”, though the footwear option may have been already picked up by N. Kiran Kumar Reddy in Hyderabad for his Jai Samaikyandhra Party.
What do these symbols stand for, if anything?
The original purpose behind assigning symbols to political parties and contestants was to help the vast number of electorate in India who are not literate choose the party or candidate they wanted to vote for. In the first Lok Sabha elections, held in 1951-52, the Congress, for instance, opted for the image of yoked oxen, not the hand it is now identified with. The EC allowed the Forward Bloc (Ruikar), one of the two factions that emerged from the splitting of the All India Forward Block in 1948, to adopt an outstretched palm as its symbol. For a party that lasted barely a year, the hand had an ironically long lifeline. The Congress hand, in contrast, seems more tense and more prudent about asserting any claims of longevity.
In 1978 the hand became the Congress’s official symbol through what seems to be a somewhat poetic sequence of events. It did not take long for it to become invested with connotations of unity and inclusiveness. When Mamata Banerjee separated from the parent party to form the Trinamool Congress, she used “jora ghas phul” (a couple of grass flowers joined at the hip) to suggest the party’s interests in grassroots politics. Another ubiquitous election symbol, the lotus, India’s national flower, is now almost exclusively associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It is no longer possible to just admire it for its intrinsic beauty in isolation from the ideology it is used to represent. The national animal, however, is relatively safer. Following a petition by animal rights activists, the EC allows only a few animals to be used as election symbols. Apparently, political parties made a habit of exhibiting petrified goats and cows during their rallies, causing much distress to the creatures—though one expects, carnivores and omnivores may not have been used for such purposes in view of public safety.
The elephant, though never accorded the same regal status as the lion, is a perhaps the most coveted animal in the jungle of Indian politics. After a heated battle between several parties, the EC allocated it to the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) to use in all Indian states except for Assam and Sikkim, where BSP’s candidates have to choose other symbols. (Incidentally, the elephant also denotes the Republican Party in the US.) The other animal depicted on voting machines is the lion, which, again, is unlikely to be paraded in public, unless of course someone manages to get hold of the Cowardly Lion from the Land of Oz.
The bulk of the free symbols, to which future aspirants in politics can help themselves, remain mostly arbitrary, if not plain intriguing, added every few months to its existing roster by the EC. If you have some time to spare, you can indulge your fancy by going through the list, trying to imagine what exactly some of these could be saying to the potential electorate. A toothbrush with a blob of toothpaste (no. 80): an urban elite symbol of hygiene? A bowl of ice-cream (no. 50): keep calm and continue voting? A dao (a sharp object, somewhere between a scimitar and a sickle)—vote for me, or else….?
A fortnightly look at the world of arts, from close and afar.
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