When Indians go to the polls, they have the option of choosing between the nail cutters, the stethoscope, the lotus, and the bicycle. On ballots, these symbols represent India’s many political parties, and they have become deeply engrained in the country’s political culture. Political symbols have played a role in Indian elections since its first general election in 1951-52, when only a fifth of the population could read or write. Literacy is now widespread, but election symbols remain an integral part of Indian politics.
The largest Indian political parties have become closely associated with their political symbols; the palm of a right hand is synonymous with the Congress Party, a lotus with the Bhartiya Janata Party. For India’s six recognized national parties, their symbols are permanently reserved for all elections. They have become incorporated into electoral politics, where Congress candidates will hold up their right hand, or a BJP candidate will remind Hindu voters that Lakshmi—the goddess of wealth—“always comes on a lotus”.
As this latter example reveals, political symbols do not only denote a particular party. They have a wide range of other meanings. A symbol must capture the message of a party as well as the concerns of voters. The BJP’s lotus captures a pro-business Hindu nationalist platform. Congress’ open palm, which was chosen over the phone following a party split, represents “hard work and toil… the cornerstone of self-reliance,” according to a party spokesman.
These choices reflect not only the party platform but also the social politics of the country. When choosing between the open palm and an elephant before the 1980 election, some believe that the elephant’s link to low-caste communities was a deciding factor. The elephant was the symbol of the All-India Scheduled Caste Federation in the 1951-52 elections, a party founded to fight for the rights of untouchables, or Dalits.
Similar politics and branding choices exist among smaller parties, who must compete for their choice of 87 ‘free symbols’. This list, which includes an air conditioner, cauliflower, and hurricane lamps, was released in a 2009 notification. The most common symbol among these is the bicycle, and, in some elections, there are raffles to determine which party will get the symbol. For Usha Yadav of the Samajwadi Party, the bicycle represents the cycling classes whose problems, including bad roads and poor education, her party aims to solve.
In other cases, the symbol is a dramatic statement of the party’s aims. The Aam Admi party, a recent anti-corruption upstart which won a resounding victory in the 2015 Delhi Legislative Assembly election, chose the broom as its symbol. Explaining the party’s choice, leader Arvind Kejriwal said: “The ‘broom’ symbolizes that the time has come to clean the politics of the country. The Aam Aadmi Party has vowed not to give a ticket to any tainted candidate. The ‘broom’ will become our weapon from now on. We will fight shoulder to shoulder with this community to clean this country.”
Symbols remain indispensable in Indian politics today, experiencing a currency compared to which elephants and donkeys are nothing. Even as literacy continues to increase, India remains a deeply multilingual country. As large parts of the electorate are unable to read English or the language of a particular region, political communication will likely remain as much visual as textual. Symbols, then, form a common language for politics where no other shared tongue exists. In a country with such strong regionalism and with so many fault lines across which communities split, the tradition of political symbols is a unifying force that strengthens the idea of a national political culture.