From flora and fauna to weapons of war, poll symbols have come a long way

Of the 6 national parties, 4 have a shared history of splits. One has a symbol that still confuses voters and only BJP can lay claim to exclusivity in terms of both party name and the lotus symbol

Election Commission of India
Election Commission of India

Sujata Anandan

Of the six national parties in India, four have a shared history of splits (Congress, NCP and the two Communist parties). One has a symbol that still confuses the voters (the Bahujan Samaj Party) and only the BJP can lay claim to exclusivity in terms of both party name and the lotus symbol.

In 1969, when the old guard expelled Indira Gandhi from the party, she went on to split the Congress and walked away with her own supporters. They called themselves by the confounding name of Congress (Requisitionists) that no common voter could be expected to find resonance with. The old guard declared they were the original Congress and the Election Commission allotted the then existing original Congress symbol of 'farmer with bullock' to the Congress (O).

Indira Gandhi had the choice of the cow with suckling calf which, never mind the R in Congress (R),  was suitably rural for the vast population of farmers who voted  for the party. She won all the subsequent by-polls and in 1971 came back with a sweeping victory on that symbol and the 'Garibi Hatao' slogan.

Most of the old guard in the Congress (O) went on to join the Congress (R).

But it was the next split in 1978 that gave Indira Gandhi some sleepless nights over her new symbol. There was such acrimony in the party over their post-Emergency defeat and so much noise over the 'cow and calf' imagery that the EC froze that symbol, along with the original 'farmer and bullock', forever.

There was little suitable in the EC’s list of symbols that would be representative of the Congress’s roots among the poor and farmers. After advice from one of her gurus, she tentatively and rather unhappily chose the symbol of the ‘Hand’ which is the Congress’s identity even today. It was meant to convey blessings but Indira Gandhi was not quite sure that the  upturned hand would be seen as such or if it would be considered presumptuous and arrogant – that she blessed all Indians.

Najma Heptullah, said to be a niece of Maulana Azad, in those days was one of those Mumbai Congress leaders who had stood by Indira Gandhi during her post-Emergency wilderness. Indira thus had taken to frequently lunching and dining with the Heptullah family.

At one such luncheon, according to what Heptullah told this writer some years ago, the two were discussing (in the presence of Sonia Gandhi who was hosting the lunch for her mother-in-law) if the 'Hand' symbol would be advantageous or damaging to the new faction of the party, called the Congress (I) – no one was quite sure if the ‘I’ stood for Indira or India.

Amid their discussion, Heptullah’s youngest daughter, then barely out of kindergarten, piped up to say, “Gai?  Haath se toh aap gai ka doodh be nikaal sakte hain!” (Cow? But you can milk the cow with the hand!”)

A stunned Indira Gandhi knew she had got it right. “Out of the mouths of babes!” she is said to have quipped, and froze the symbol for her  party. It is now the official symbol of the Indian National Congress as the party began to be represented not long after on ballot papers and the INC swept elections everywhere on that symbol.

Two decades later, though, her daughter-in-law who had stepped reluctantly into politics to save her party would face another split engineered by a man who thought, not unlike Eknath Shinde, that he could convince the people he was the true INC. In anticipation of that takeover, he thought he would make it easy for everyone by naming his party the Indian Nationalist Congress. But the EC was having none of it. The commission asked Pawar to change the name of his party to a sufficiently distinct one from the Indian National Congress and also denied the NCP its desired symbol of the chakra or the charkha.

The NCP’s declared party flag was the national tricolour, as was the  Congress’s. Embossing a wheel in the centre of the white strip would not just confuse people and voters but also seem to equate the NCP flag with the national tricolour. So Pawar had to settle for the alarm clock and that symbol belongs exclusively to the NCP today.

There was less complications when the Communist Party of India split into two distinct entities in 1964 after years of bitter fights among its leaders. The original symbol of the farmer with the plough (though no bullock) was frozen but both parties came up with their respective enduring versions of the Communist symbol, the sickle and hammer, drawn from Soviet imagery. The CPI symbol has a lush ear of corn pushing through the half circle of the sickle while the CPM has been voted into governments on many occasions on just the sickle and hammer with a lone red star above the tools of labour.

There was never any confusion among Left voters about who the symbols represented but when the Congress and NCP allied with three factions of the Republican Party of India in 2004, they discovered their voters had been  taken for a ride – by the Bahujan Samaj Party’s ‘elephant’. That symbol had belonged at the outset to Dr B. R.  Ambedkar’s party but when the RPI split into multiple  factions (at last count, 13) with as many notable  leaders as the factions they led, the elephant was frozen against their use and later allotted to the BSP.

But the old generation Of Dalit voters in Maharashtra continued to associate the elephant with the RPI and thus the Congress-NCP lost many seats as the BSP cut into their margins. The two parties undertook an education of the “elephant voters” and later insisted RPI leaders contest on either the Congress or the NCP symbol to avoid this kind of confusion in the future.

When there was family turmoil in the Samajwadi Party some years ago, Akhilesh Yadav was in danger of losing the bicycle as his party symbol though he had made contingency plans to adopt the motorcycle, similar to the bicycle in looks, as his party symbol during the 2017 Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. But that eventuality did not arise.

Uddhav Thackeray has now been given his third choice of the burning torch (mashaal) after the EC  froze the symbol of the bow and arrow, a very different image altogether. He has, however, approached the Delhi High Court for a stay on that decision on the grounds that he was not given a proper hearing by the Commission. His other choices were the  trident (trishul)  and the rising sun to both of which Shinde has also laid claim, apart from the  mace (gada).

The allotment to him will determine if the EC is being fair or unfair, for Shinde has been allowed to use Bal Thackeray’s name for his party while Uddhav Thackeray will call his party the Shiv Sena Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray party as against Shinde’s simple Balasahebanchi Shiv Sena. Quite a mouthful  against Communist Party Marxist,  Congress Indira or even the tongue-twister called  Congress Requisitionist! 

How will they shorten the names on the voting machines? That is for the EC to sort out.

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