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Rediff.com  » Election » The 'symbolism' of Indian elections

The 'symbolism' of Indian elections

By George Iype
February 19, 2004 11:38 IST
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India is now preparing for the world's largest political event -- a general election to the Lok Sabha.

India has an electorate exceeding 668 million, which can exercise its franchise at nearly 800,000 polling stations located across the country, from the snow-clad Himalayas to the burning deserts of Rajasthan, from the remote villages of the Northeast to tiny, sparsely populated islands in the Indian Ocean.

In 1999, 1,299 candidates from seven national parties, 750 candidates from 40 state parties, 654 candidates from officially recognised parties, and 1,945 independent candidates contested the Lok Sabha election. In all 37,16,69,282 of the then total electorate of 61,95,59,944 cast their votes.

One of the biggest problems for many voters in India, where a large part of the population is still illiterate, is how to identify their chosen candidates on the ballots. The Election Commission, thus, has the laborious task of allocating separate election symbols for each party and the innumerable independent candidates.

As part of our series explaining India's electoral process, rediff.com presents a ready reckoner on the election symbols that, over the years, have become the brand images of certain political parties and candidates.

How does the Election Commission select the symbols?

The Commission has a list of symbols culled over the years. At any given point of time, the apex election office in New Delhi maintains at least 100 free symbols that have not been allotted to any party. The symbols chosen are such that they can be easily understood, remembered and recognised by the average voter.

How attached are political parties to their symbols?

The symbols are so important that today certain parties are identified by their symbols. So if you see a lotus, you instantly think Bharatiya Janata Party; if a politician holds up his palm, it means he is a Congressman. If there is a hammer and sickle on a poster, it means the candidate is a member of the Communist Party of India, Marxist.

Do political parties offer their own symbols to the Commission? Or does the Commission allot symbols to the parties?

In most cases, parties offer their own symbols, which the Commission may or may not accept. If it is a unique symbol that no other party has laid claim to, then the Commission will allocate that symbol to the party. But if that or a similar symbol is already in use by another party, the Commission may deny permission and suggest alternatives.

What are the Commission's rules governing electoral symbols?

The Commission has stipulated that the symbols of all nationally recognised parties should be standard throughout India. Thus, the BJP's 'lotus' symbol will not be allotted to any other party or individual, even if the BJP does not have a candidate in a particular constituency or state. (A party is considered a national party only if it is represented in at least four states and/or Union territories.)

Then there are the state parties, which are allotted certain symbols that no other party can use in that particular state, but which different parties in different states can use. Thus, the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha in Bihar both use 'bow and arrow' as their symbol.

What happens when a political party splits and different leaders stake their claim to its symbol?

The Commission accepts representations from rival factions and takes a decision according to the merits of the case. For instance, in 1999, when the Janata Dal split, the rival factions demanded the 'wheel' symbol. But the Commission froze the symbol. Instead, it allotted 'farmer driving a tractor' to one faction and 'arrow' to the other.

The Commission has also stipulated that if a particular party or individual is contesting an election for the second time from the same constituency, that party or individual has first claim to the symbol they used the last time around.

Is there any new case of rival factions of a political party clamouring for the same symbol?

Yes. The Nationalist Congress Party split last month with Sharad Pawar and Purno Sangma parting ways. Both factions
have now petitioned the Commission for the 'clock' symbol.

Are animals allotted as electoral symbols?

The Commission has stopped allotting animals as symbols after animal rights activists complained that parties were parading the creatures during campaigns and subjecting them to cruelty. The only exceptions are the lion and the elephant.

What are the popular electoral symbols of major political parties?

  • Bahujan Samaj Party: Elephant
  • Bharatiya Janata Party: Lotus
  • Communist Party of India, Marxist: Hammer and sickle with five-pointed star
  • Indian National Congress: Palm of the hand
  • Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam: Rising sun
  • All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam: Two leaves
  • Nationalist Congress Party: Clock
  • Rashtriya Janata Dal: Lantern
  • Samajwadi Party: Bicycle
  • Samata Party: Flaming torch
  • Shiv Sena: Bow and arrow
  • Telugu Desam Party: Plough
  • Trinamul Congress: Two flowers

IN THIS SERIES
What is the Election Commission?
What does dissolution of Parliament mean?

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George Iype