Election symbols: Silent messaging plays a big role in Indian politics

As with all symbols, though, the symbolism of party insignia is also open to interpretation.
As with all symbols, though, the symbolism of party insignia is also open to interpretation.

Summary

  • As elections begin, the silent messages of political parties gain salience across India. Let’s admit it: A party symbol can speak a thousand words. It’s also what a voter usually spots first on the ballot.

Indian elections get underway this Friday with polling booths thrown open for us to pick members of the 18th Lok Sabha. As voters scan the list of candidates on electronic voting machines, looking for which button to press, we can safely assume that party symbols will catch their attention before they can read the names of people in the fray. In many cases, that will be the only cue needed for a vote to be cast. The use of easy-to-identify symbols goes back to India’s early years of low literacy. While over three-fourths of all adults are now classified as literate, the value of these symbols has not diminished. It may even have gone up in recent elections marked by the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), given that many electors see a vote for the ruling party as a vote for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership. For such voters, spotting the BJP’s lotus symbol on ballots is what matters. The same advantage may also work for opposition parties. The Congress’s hand symbol, for example, could also attract votes by means of a visual cue, without names needing to be read. Symbol salience is the equivalent of brand recognition, clearly, which explains the prominence given to these icons in party publicity material. As with all symbols, though, the symbolism of party insignia is also open to interpretation.

The BJP’s lotus offers vast scope for a semiotic study. As a flower, it can cue thoughts of a bloom in fortunes, for example, which squares rather well with its campaign theme of development and aim of a ‘Viksit Bharat’ (developed India) by 2047. As a particular type of flower, known for sprouting rapidly across a pond of water once it takes root, it also evokes a sense of expansion. Comments on the party’s lotus-like proliferation since the early 1990s have been common, especially in Hindi. The ruling party’s archrival, the Indian National Congress, has also enjoyed high levels of recognition across India by virtue of its election symbol. It comes in handy to position the Congress in popular perception as a party offering a helping hand. By coincidence or not, this seems in sync with the grand old party’s welfare orientation. It also lends itself to advertising propositions. “Haath badlega haalat," is its ad-line for these polls: The hand will change circumstances. While a hand that symbolizes agency (as a doer) may remind economists of a debate on state intervention, given that the free market is supposed to work at the behest of an ‘invisible hand,’ a palm held up can more generally be interpreted as a human gesture that signals assurance. This reading of the Congress symbol also conforms with the party’s promise of ‘nyay’ or justice, an abstract value that can be sought to be assured at many levels in multiple contexts. Think of social justice, for example, alternate approaches to which have animated identity politics since the early 1990s.

Party symbols are powerful. Which is why retaining the original is so crucial to the warring factions of parties that split. These symbols hold the key to party recognition. Decades ago, Marxists were lucky to get the Communist icon of a sickle, hammer and star. In 2022, only one part of a divided Shiv Sena could claim its bow-and-arrow, resulting in a wrangle over it. Party symbols are also useful. Which is why they often get deployed literally. Samajwadi Party leaders don’t miss a chance to cycle around. Aam Aadmi Party supporters use its broom as a clean-up call. Silent messaging works. It’s why lotuses are flourishing on walls and hands of solidarity are in the air.

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