There are thousands of parties contesting the upcoming Lok Sabha election in India, the largest democratic event in history, which will stretch across 29 states and seven union territories between April 11 and May 19. In a country where at least a quarter of the population is illiterate, how do people make sure they pick the right party in the polling booth?
Easy: They recognise its symbol.
This, of course, goes for the large national parties, such as the Indian National Congress, whose symbol is a hand, the Bharatiya Janata Party, represented by a lotus flower, or the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), symbolised by an elephant, or well-known state parties, like Delhi and Punjab’s Aam Aadmi Party, which in line with its common man ideology, has a broom as a symbol of choice. But having a recognisable symbol is especially important for the myriads of local parties that pop up to contest elections, often running in just a few polls.
Enter the gas cylinder, the letterbox, the pillow, and the many other symbols, inspired by common objects, that are up for grabs by those willing to contest the election.
The election commission comes up with all of the symbols and publishes them in official lists, from which parties have the choice of picking their favourite.
This has been a practice since the very first election, in 1951-52, when the election commission devised it to ensure that an overwhelmingly illiterate population (when the British left, only about 16% of Indians could read and write) could vote with confidence. The election commission figured it best to use images of objects of common use, and employed a draftsman, MS Sethi, to sketch them.
From an envelope to a cricket bat, to a tea kettle, Sethi drew up his images in a peculiar, minimalistic style familiar to Indian voters. He continued doing so for 40 years, till he retired in 1992. His work still continues to remain a cornerstone of the great Indian election machine.
As of 2015, new parties can suggest up to three symbols, together with clear drawings and descriptive names, from which the election commission can pick one to assign them. According to the election commission, these symbols cannot be depicting animals, or be communal or religious symbols.
A symbolic journey
Not only, did Sethi continue to add symbols all through his four-decade service, but the commission added images after his departure. Many look like they were taken from a standard clipart collection; others look like photographs summarily printed with an inkjet machine (somewhat unsurprisingly, many of them are amongst the leftover symbols that haven’t been grabbed for this election).
Sports are also big, portrayed for instance by a javelin thrower, a football player, and the cricket batsman.
India’s many fairytale animals—peacocks, tigers, and camels, oh my—however are not in the mix: Once included in the symbols lists, they were removed, apparently, after environmentalists complained about the habit of parties to parade their symbol animal in political rallies. Only the BSP’s elephant and the lion—used by the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (Goa), the Hill State People’s Democratic Party (Meghalaya)— and the All India Forward Bloc’s (West Bengal) tiger remain in the lists.
But these symbols aren’t just another ingenious solution driven by the desire to get as much of the voting population of 900 million to the polls as possible. Nor are they only yet another cute iteration of the quirky visual aesthetic that for decades has informed India’s educational posters or its road signs. These symbols are chapters in a story of modernisation, and chronicle the journey that took India from a place where an easily recognisable object would be a doli (palanquin) to one where laptops, and CCTV cameras are commonplace enough to be available for grabs by parties contesting in the most remote corners of the country.
The overall collection stands an evolving inventory of what survived the test of time and remained familiar as the country crossed into a new era and then a new millennium, and what is ready to take it on: the perfectly trapezoidal lady purse, Mayawati docet, made it through the decades, and so did the room cooler and the hand cart; will the laptop be as recognizable first-time voters in 2086 as the hand-pushed cart is to today’s? The answer will be online—assuming the internet is still a thing—ready to download from the election commission’s website.
Explore more of the available symbols here:
Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.