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  • Writer's pictureUtkarsh Agrawal

Symbols or Democracy? Choose One!

Updated: Oct 17, 2023

With the omnipresence of some powerful electoral symbols in elections across the country, it is a pertinent question, whether Indian voters are electing candidates or just symbols. The permanence of symbols for some and lack of it for others has turned the democracy lopsided in favour of established and disincentivize democratic experiments.

The allotment of symbols has been a bickering point between parties ever since the first all-party meeting was organized by EC in July 1951. The simultaneous demands for ‘plough’ as a symbol had to be satisfied by banning it for everyone. In her memoirs, Gayatri Devi of Jaipur mentions how she had a hard time educating her voters that her symbol was ‘Star’ and not ‘Horse rider’ which many assumed was as she was a horse rider herself. There are psychological and anthropological reasons associated with the choice of symbols and success of some over others, bread over cake, etc. Indeed, the introduction of symbols in massive electoral exercise such as India’s was a novel and innovative way to include the illiterates into the folds of universal adult franchise and to help them identify the candidate and symbol of their choice since only the name and symbol was present on ballot-box(1951) and then ballot-papers (1957 onwards). It was lauded then by many nascent democracies of that time. It achieved its utility in the general elections in India starting 1951 when literacy was abysmally low at 18.33% and voter turnout was remarkably higher at 45.7%.

K F Wilfred, principal secretary, ECI, said “Beginning from the 1950s, one of the biggest problems for many voters in India, where a large population is illiterate, was how to identify the candidates on the ballots. And on the Election Commission fell the laborious task of allocating symbols for each party and the innumerable independent candidates. It was decided that the symbols chosen should be such that they are easily understood, remembered, and recognized by an average voter. So, a team of officials would sit together and discuss the day-to-day used articles like a table, telephone, cupboard, and toothbrush — that could be used as symbols by political parties.”

The symbols are allotted to candidates based on THE ELECTION SYMBOLS (RESERVATION AND ALLOTMENT) ORDER, 1961. There are multiple restrictions to it, for example, symbols can’t represent a religion or a caste, but it is silent on ideology and thus, hammer and sickle is freely used by CPI(M). Over time controversies happened, latest being a demand by PETA for the prohibition of all animal symbols as elephant, lion and tiger are the only exceptions to this no-animal rule since 1990, and, consequently, the list has now reduced to meaningless and mundane symbols. There are also demands to use public money to make political parties not use the symbols in daily life which have a chance to influence voters. INC in Madhya Pradesh wanted Lotus ponds to be covered responding to which BJP asked if they’d also cover their hands as it was their symbol, interestingly the only body part approved as a symbol. Thus, we see that allocation and design of symbol is not based on any reasonable criteria and intelligible differentia and amounts to discrimination on the basis of factors yet to be substantiated. Moreover, the symbols are designed like logos due to logistical challenges of printing and lead to confusion amongst voters (AAP claimed that voters got confused between ‘Broom’ and ‘Torch with Light Rays’ in Delhi). But such an absurdity is not my central argument. The effect of a symbol on the electoral process has deviated far from being inclusionary to be a class-based exclusionary tool.

Symbols for Inclusion

The reasons for opting for a symbol system over others like ballot numbers, pictures, etc. in 1951 can be summarized as widespread illiteracy that even numbers can’t be read, no technology or resources to put photos of the candidates on the ballot box/paper, and choice/availability of widely recognized symbols. While usage of symbols is still justified as a quarter of the population is still illiterate, its reservation for a few seems to have outlived its utility. With the advent of technology and the availability of resources, it is now possible to print the photo of a candidate along with his name and party name.

In the current system, while there’s subtle discrimination between recognized national and state parties, there’s stark unconstitutional discrimination between recognized and new unrecognized parties or independents,. At the eve of General Elections 2019, 2293 parties were registered with ECI while it didn’t have that many symbols at its disposal. Fortunately, it didn’t need such many symbols as the highest number of symbols needed in a constituency was 185 (Nizamabad). This led to the usage of symbols such as mobile charger, nail cutter, pen drive, mouse, dumbbells, and a ROBOT!! The candidate who was allotted Pendrive never saw one in his life. Now, does the argument of symbols being easily recognizable hold true?

In this system of reservation of symbols, while an independent candidate being at a lesser footing than the candidate affiliated by a political party is still justified as he is free to join any party or even float a new one, but the difference between a recognized and unrecognized party by ECI is quite stark. The recognized parties avail the symbols perpetually and use it as their flag as well. A star campaigner lures voters for all 5 years of a constituency term as he/she is sure that what is the symbol they’re going to get. Political parties bring corrupt and parachute candidates by alleged selling of symbols for a constituency on the power of the appeal of their symbols which they have grown as a brand. A campaigner on a TV or Radio or Social Media can simply ask voters across a country to choose a symbol without even bothering to mention the name or qualities of the candidate. It has been widely reported by ADR and several news reports that many a time voters don’t even know the name/credentials of their local candidate. This phenomenon has not only made the elections corrupt, criminal, and costly but also has dented the very essence of our democracy, the parliamentary form of government, recognized as a part of the basic structure of our constitution. According to ADR Mid-Term Survey Report — All India Jan’17-Apr’17, 67% of voters agreed that CM/PM candidate influence their voting behavior and 39% agreed that they voted for candidates with serious criminal records as they didn’t know about it.

The prevailing system of reservation of symbols thus helps the concentration of public opinion in the favor of recognized national and state parties, keeping unrecognized registered parties at a great disadvantage. It gives a recognized political party 5 years to publicize the symbol and enable its last-minute candidate to consolidate party votes without a real connection with the voters. But the candidates of unrecognized registered political parties are allotted the symbol less than 15 days before the polling date at par with independent candidates and leaves them at the impossible task of familiarizing their 15–20 lakhs voters with the symbol just allotted. Even if they are working for 5 years in their constituency, it is practically impossible to publicize their symbol to all the voters and it is more important to do so since their name on the ballot will be way below the other established symbols (See Form 7A, ECI). This put both the candidates on unequal footing without any reasonable classification between them on the grounds of the purpose of the electoral exercise.

What can be alternatives to Symbols?

Let’s discuss the suggestions available and their effect on reasons chosen for the symbol regimen in the first place. Now that it is a mainstream practice to use the photo of the candidate next to the EVM button of the vote along with the name, party name and symbol with candidates listed alphabetically, the symbol can be easily done away with the photo being a true distinct marker of the identity of the candidate. Another option is to replace the symbols with ballot numbers while retaining all other details and allotting the ballot number by a lottery or alphabetically. Currently, the ballot is represented by candidates of national parties alphabetically, then candidates of state parties alphabetically and then candidates of registered unrecognized political parties followed by independents and ending in NOTA (See Form 7A, ECI).

Either of the systems seems to pass the test if evaluated on reasons for the adoption of symbols in Indian electoral exercise. Photos and numbers are familiar to even illiterate voters. Usage of EVM pre-supposes the knowhow of the machine through voter-awareness programs of ECI and since EVMs already carry the photographs of all candidates and thus ballot numbers can easily be put in minds of voters. And since all the government facilities are already connected to a unique number (read Aadhaar) already, the non-readability of basic numbers is a far-fetched hypothesis.

On the advantage front, it will level the arena for all candidates as they are being classified on a reasonable criterion, lottery, or alphabetically. It will enrich the democratic participation, where star campaigners of the party won’t be able to influence voter in all constituencies just by publicizing the symbol as all their candidates will be having a different ballot number in each constituency and hence campaigners will have to enlist the name, photo and ballot number constituency-wise for asking votes of that constituency. It will make voters inquisitive, informed, and put similar pressure on all candidates to familiarize themselves with their voters in the limited time.

The usage of symbols has outlived its utility to act as the facilitator of Universal Adult Franchise due to the increased literacy and due to its conversion into an ‘intellectual property’ after THE ELECTION SYMBOLS (RESERVATION AND ALLOTMENT) ORDER, 1961. Symbols were to be allotted for each general election to the parties by the ECI, but the above-mentioned order systematically laid the path to the everlasting influence of already established parties. The nation might not be ready for this huge shift in the way it chooses its government, but it is high time that a serious discussion must be made in this direction.

Note: Delhi High Court in Alka Gahlot Case 2017, directed the State Election Commission to consider the restriction of reserved symbols in Municipal Elections. A PIL is pending in Allahabad High Court (Shraddha Tripathi 2019) on the perpetual reservation of symbols in favor of successful political parties and its use in party flags.

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