It’s not the face that the voter sees, or the name of the candidate. In the booth, the only thing available for stamping is the symbol. That is what represents the candidate and the party he stands for. So what goes into this primary mark of identity?

Back in 2006, the Lok Satta Party—its roots were in Lok Satta, a civil society movement started in 1996 by former IAS officer Jayaprakash Narayan in Andhra Pradesh, which spread around the country—transformed itself into a political party with a promise to usher in a new culture and democratic reforms. As a part of its Election Watch Programme, Lok Satta created a flutter in 2004 by releasing a list of prospective candidates with criminal cases pending against them. Its political logo is a rectangle of dark blue with a white circle with a five-angled star. The dark blue, its website says, “symbolises the vastness, depth and inclusive nature of the ocean in which all streams finally merge.”

To fully engage with political process, the party decided to contest assembly by-elections and elections in Andhra Pradesh in 2008-2009. The working committee of the party unanimously chose the “whistle” as its party symbol in 2007-08 from the Election Commission (EC)’s given list of free symbols.

Explaining the symbol’s rationale, Karthik Chandra, speaking on behalf of the organisation, says, “Lok Satta advocates transparency and clean governance. Since whistle corresponds to whistleblowers, Lok Satta chose this symbol. This is a collective call for change, for better lives and livelihoods, for better India.” There were also practical aspects to choosing the symbol. “Whistle is easily recognisable; it’s handy and convenient for advertisements and publicity.”

From religion to science, from art to politics, symbols are ubiquitous: an abstraction concretised into a graphic, perhaps simple in design but dense with meaning, a collection of thoughts and ideologies made tangible. They grab the imagination and provide a foundation for understanding. 

We make sense of the world by making use of symbols and by interpreting them. The Hindu om, the Buddhist wheel of dharma, Islam’s star and crescent, the Christian cross and others resonate with their followers.

Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud’s great contemporary, showed how symbols play a huge role in the collective unconscious. In his book, Man and His Symbols, he says the symbol is “a name, term, picture which is familiar in daily life, yet has other connotations besides its conventional and obvious meaning. Implies something vague and partially unknown or hidden, and is never precisely defined. Dream symbols carry messages from the unconscious to the rational mind.”

No wonder political parties set so much stock in symbols. Before the general elections in 1951-52, the country had coloured boxes for local elections. The first general election introduced party symbols which have become handy tools to reach out to the general public, especially if they are illiterate. The symbol indicated the party, in some cases it was the party. So politicians worked on making their particular symbol, trying to make sure voters knew which one represented their party. They have since become an indispensable part of our political tradition.

Dr N. Bhaskara Rao, founder-chairman of the Center for Media Studies (CMS) in Delhi, says, “In a multi-language, multi-party country like ours where a number of candidates contest, symbols help connect and remind voters of their preferences.”

He relates an ingenious way of fighting an election, a way of vitiating a contest saved by a symbol. Just a few weeks ago, the BJP’s Chandu Lal Sahu was contesting from Mahasamund constituency in Chhattisgarh for the Lok Sabha. Ten independents of the same name filed their nominations for the election, throwing up a strange scenario. Luckily, only one had the Lotus symbol. The BJP alleged that Ajit Jogi was the mastermind behind that move.

In earlier decades, Rao says, parties chose symbols “that reflected their concerns and that resonated with large sections of voters and their vocations.” But with the proliferation of registered political parties with the Election Commission—as many as 1,600—parties select from the list of free symbols available with EC, and symbols “make no sense except for their identification and description.”

The objects themselves may be unremarkable. The more accessible, the more familiar the symbol, the greater its reach and effect. As an object such as the broom doesn’t have much going for it. But in many households, it’s considered a symbol of goddess Lakshmi, and is kept in a proper place, rather than thrown anywhere.

Even with heightened literacy levels, symbols have practical value on the ballot paper or electronic voting machine (EVM), which don’t have names of parties or candidates. “We have to depend on symbols,” says Karthik. “Now most of the constituencies have large numbers of contestants. In some, we have 15, 20, sometimes 30 candidates, and the voter has 2 or 3 seconds to press the button. Names, even if they’re printed, won’t work. Symbols alone work. They help people identify parties and candidates easily.”

The objects themselves may be unremarkable. The more accessible, the more familiar the symbol, the greater its reach and effect. As an object such as the broom doesn’t have much going for it. But in many households, it’s considered a symbol of goddess Lakshmi, and is kept in a proper place, rather than thrown anywhere. Invested with political meaning, it’s a symbol, an instrument for cleaning up the dirt in the system, sweeping the body clean of corruption.

By sheer force of attendant association, the Aam Aadmi Party’s down-to-earth symbol took the party to the masses easily. It has made for great spectacle in itself: a clutch of brooms held by a bunch of people wearing topis, all in the service of raising hell.

In the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of politics in the United States, the
donkey represents the Democrats, and the elephant the Republicans. It was political cartoonist Thomas Nast who popularised the animal symbols for both parties.

Democrat Andrew Jackson, in the 1828 presidential campaign, was often derided as a “jackass” for pandering to populism. Instead of being offended, he liked being called jackass, and used the stubborn donkey as his symbol. Later, Thomas Nast began using the donkey to represent Democrats in his cartoons, and as Wikipedia, the repository of all things, says, in an 1874 cartoon, Nast sketched a donkey dressed up as a lion, terrifying other animals at the zoo, except for the elephant which was “the Republican vote”.

In contrast, we at one time had different fauna such as the dove, peacock and parrot as symbols. The Election Commission stopped allotting animals and birds after animal rights activists raised concerns that the animals would be dragged and paraded around while campaigning and made to suffer. In Pakistan, for example, Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N party uses the tiger as its party symbol. Last year, a number of tigers, including a white tiger, died after being used at election rallies. The Bahujan Samaj Party’s elephant and All India Forward Bloc’s lion continue to be used as they were allocated much before the ban was made official in 2003.

In the colourful, vibrant and often crazy Indian political tradition, household implements and common objects work as symbols. Sometimes it is hard to see why they are used at all. They include the walking stick, cot, nail-cutter, pressure cooker, toothbrush, coconut, grapes and many more. Some obscure, unknown (and perhaps unknowable) parties and independents were allotted the autorickshaw, hand pump, television, sewing machine, slate, balloon, hat, kettle, pen-stand, blackboard and kite as symbols.

The list doesn’t end here. A prospective candidate could also choose a carrot, cauliflower, violin, schoolbag, saw, calculator, clock, scissors, cup and saucer, gas cylinder, hockey stick and ball, ladder, and bucket. Appropriately enough, there’s also the cake, which, in the scheme of things, all politicians would like both to eat and to have.

While the Hand, Lotus, Ears of Corn and Sickle, and Hammer and Sickle are part of everyday political lore, the refrigerator [Republican Party of India (A)], almirah [Jan Kranti Party (Rashtrawadi)], dish antenna (Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party), glass tumbler (Qaumi Ekta Dal), and electric pole (Bundelkhand Congress) have their day in the sun on occasions. In newly-formed Telangana, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi is contesting on an old car whose tyres other parties are trying to puncture. Politicians often attack symbols in place of candidates and parties. Telugu Desam Party’s Chandrababu Naidu boasts that his bicycle—refurbished, redone, with a million pillion drivers and newly acquired bells and whistles—is going faster than that rickety car. The bicycle also happens to be the symbol of the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh.

With as many as 1,600 to 1,700 registered parties and umpteen number of independents, and many symbols in play, there could be symbols that look similar on ballots and EVMs. EVMs don’t recognize symbols—they recognise numbers—but similar-looking symbols can confuse voters. That’s what happened in parliamentary elections held in North Goa constituency on April 12.

Last May, during Delhi assembly elections, the AAP complained that many voters mistook another symbol to be their broom—the symbol of a battery torch with rays of light that belonged to the Samajwadi Janata Party (Rashtriya). AAP asked the Election Commission to delist the torch as a free symbol. The EC, in its wisdom, partly agreed to AAP’s argument: it removed the rays of light, added a button to the torch, and made it slimmer.

However, during the Lok Sabha elections in North Goa constituency, the battery torch appeared again with rays of light underneath the AAP’s broom symbol on the EVM. AAP alleges foul play by local election officials, and wants a repoll.

The age-old symbols of CPI and CPI(M) can also drive voters, if any, to distraction. They solve that by time-honoured practices such as lynching, bus-burning and shooting with
country-made pistols.

Familiar and easily recognisable stuff makes the list of the Election Commission’s free symbol menu. As people get more comfortable with technology, many objects connected with technology will soon find a place in the list of available free symbols by the next elections in 2019.

The Election Commission’s a list of free symbols contain those that are not claimed by any party. The logic behind listed symbols is that they’re easily recognised and remembered. Parties can suggest their own symbol, and the EC has the authority to accept or reject the request. Usually, if a particular party’s symbol is unique and no other party has it, the EC allocates it. If the symbol is in use, the EC suggests an alternative.

Whenever parties split and members jump fence, great conflict—and sometimes hilarity—ensues over the symbol. When the Nationalist Congress Party split, the Sharad Pawar and Purno Sangma factions both claimed the clock as their symbol. During a split, the EC has the authority to reject the claims of warring factions, and offer different symbols, as happened when the Janata Dal split in 1999. Both factions claimed the wheel as their symbol, but the EC rejected it and allocated an arrow and a farmer driving a tractor instead.

A particular absurdity of a registered yet unrecognised party’s candidates contesting on different symbols existed until Lok Satta approached the court to obtain the whistle for its symbol, and change a provision in the Election Symbols (Reservation and Allotment) Order 1968, the order the Election Commission follows to allot symbols.

The order classifies symbols as reserved and free. Reserved symbols are allotted to candidates put up by a party, and free symbols to other candidates. Recognised parties are national parties and state parties that have certain vote percentages. According to the order, the candidate put up by a national party gets the symbol reserved for the party; in similar fashion, the candidate put up by a state party is allotted the symbol reserved for the party in that particular state. In essence, the order works for reserved symbols.

The Order left—until Lok Satta went to the Andhra Pradesh High Court and later the Supreme Court—registered yet unrecognised parties in an absurd situation. Lok Satta is registered yet unrecognised, and had a presence across the state, but its candidates were given diferent symbols in different constituencies.

“It was illogical,” Karthik recounts. “That would have led to massive confusion.” So the party approached the High Court to clear the confusion. Agreeing with Lok Satta’s argument, it directed the Election Commission to allot a single, common symbol across the state.

Though the commission filed a Special Leave Petition (SLP) in the Supreme Court, its arguments were struck down. Along with other registered yet unrecognised parties like Praja Rajyam in Andhra Pradesh (later it merged with the Congress) and Vijaykanth’s DMDK in Tamil Nadu, Lok Satta’s arguments found resonance in the Supreme Court. So the Election Commission allotted the Whistle to Lok Satta, the Rail Engine to Praja Rajyam and Nagara (drum) to DMDK. Now candidates from registered yet unrecognised parties can contest on a single symbol.

Along with parties, we return to symbols, our basic roots. Some symbols, however humble, may be archetypes. Jung says, “There is a thinking in primordial images, in symbols which are older than the historical man, which are inborn in him from the earliest times, eternally living, outlasting all generations, still make up the groundwork of the human psyche. It is only possible to live the fullest life when we are in harmony with these symbols; wisdom is a return to them.”