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September 15, 1999


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The Rediff Election Specials/ Amberish K Diwanji

Symbols are become the brand images of parties

Out of India's population of nearly one billion, an unbelievable (but true) 48 per cent or about 480 million are illiterate. The maximum, alas, from any country! And even from the remaining literate, a huge number can be categorised as semi-literates, who may not exactly understand what they read.

While illiteracy is no doubt a major problem in administrating India, it also creates special problems during an election. And none more so that enabling the illiterate person to identify his candidate.

India is never short on solutions. The answer to the problem in creating symbols for each party and even for each candidate (for all those numerous Independents who stand for elections, often without a hope of winning). And in this corporate age, "symbols are become the brand images of parties," explains Deputy Election Commissioner Subhas Pani.

So much so, that today, parties are identified by their symbols. See a lotus and you think BJP, wave a hand (palm) indicates Congress, hammer and sickle is the universal sign of the Reds, and so on.

How does the Election Commission select the symbols? Explains Pani, "We have a list of symbols culled over the years, and which we maintain at hundred free symbols. Senior officials select the symbols."

The symbols chosen are ones that are easy for the voters to understand. Given India's high illiteracy and vast rural population, the symbols must be simple so that an average voter will recognise and remember it at the all-important moment of voting.

In some cases, parties offer their own symbols which the EC may or may not accept. The Arunachal Congress party uses a symbol of 'two daos intersecting' (two swords crossed), a unique symbol.

To link symbol to party, the Election Commission has declared certain ground rules. First and foremost, the symbols of the national parties are standard throughout India. Thus, the 'lotus' symbol cannot be allotted to any other party or individual anywhere, even if the BJP is absent in the particular state or constituency. "This is to avoid confusion in the people's mind and also to give national parties a single identifiable symbol," said Pani.

A party must be represented in at least four states or Union territories to qualify as national. Then there are the state parties, which are given certain symbols that no other party can use in that particular state, but which two different parties in different states can use. Thus, both the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha in Bihar use the 'bow and arrow' symbol.

Yet, this simple principle ran into trouble when the Bahujan Samaj Party burst on the electoral scene with a bang. The BSP initially was active only in Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, and was given the 'elephant' symbol. In the east, both the Asom Gana Parishad and Sikkim Sangram Parishad have the 'elephant' symbol.

"The problem occurred after 1998 when the BSP qualified as a national party and its symbol clashed with that of the AGP and SSP," pointed out Pani.

To resolve the matter, the EC resolved that should the BSP contest in Assam and/or Sikkim, it will now have to use another symbol and not the 'elephant'.

"However, to ensure that this situation does not occur again, the EC decided in 1998 that no two state parties will henceforth be given the same symbols, even if in different states," said Pani, "because one never knows when a certain state party will seek representation in another state."

The importance of a symbol can never be overestimated. When Sharad Pawar, Purno Sangma and Tariq Anwar broke away from the Congress to float the Nationalist Congress Party, they lobbied for the 'chakra' (spinning wheel) symbol, which has a tremendous historic significance, being associated with the Independence movement.

The Congress vehemently objected to the move and the NCP now uses the rather prosaic 'clock'.

The biggest problem for new parties is to make the voters sensitive about the symbols, or else a confused voter may end up voting for the wrong party!

"Recently, one of our surveys in Bellary had an interesting result," said pollster Dr N Bhaskara Rao of the Centre for Media Studies. "We found that many people said they would vote for the BJP, but when we asked them what was the symbol, they replied they did not know and many said the 'hand' (the Congress symbol). This can lead to tragic consequences," he added.

Explaining this phenomenon, Dr Bhaskara Rao pointed out that the BJP had never contested Bellary before, not even in the various assembly segments, and therefore its 'lotus' symbol was a non-entity.

"Suddenly, out of nowhere, they have to tell their supporters that the symbol is the lotus, and keep repeating that so that on voting day, in the loneliness of the polling booth, s/he remembers where to place the stamp or press the button. The lotus is unknown whereas the 'hand' is well known and that makes a difference," said Dr Rao.

No wonder when parties split, every faction wants the original symbol because selling a new symbol is a very difficult task. When the Janata Dal broke up in July, both factions wanted the 'wheel' symbol. The EC decided to freeze the 'wheel' and gave both factions -- the JD (United) and JD (Secular) completely new symbols, forcing the leaders to work overtime in selling the new symbols. To get the point across, one faction was given the symbol 'farmer driving tractor' and the other 'arrow'.

"It is for this reason that if a particular party or individual is contesting the election a second time from the same constituency, he has the first claim to the symbol that he had used the first time," said Pani.

Then there are other rules that the EC observes. For instance, small animals are no longer allotted as symbols. The only animal symbols allotted are elephants and lions. "We have stopped allotting small animals as symbols because we found that parties would then parade such animals and subject them to immense cruelty. Often, the Opposition would kill the roosters or parrots declaring this is the fate that awaits so-and-so party," said Pani. Ironically, the 'lion' is a popular symbol, used by four parties in four different states.

The Rediff Election Specials

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