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Editorial: Symbolism lost in the campaign

The battle for Fort St George is now heating up as we are less than a month away from the Tamil Nadu Assembly Elections 2021.

Editorial: Symbolism lost in the campaign


In the run-up to this hotly-contested battle, major political parties are going all out to paint the electorate in shades of green, red and black, as has been the norm in Tamil Nadu for several decades. This time around, the political tug of war has extended to the arena of election symbols in a big way. The party symbol or logo, which is a graphical representation of a party’s origins and its values, is essentially the equivalent of a war-time insignia, that makes it instantly recognisable to its followers and supporters.

Earlier this week, the Madras High Court instructed the Election Commission of India to assign smaller political parties symbols that are distinct in nature and can be recognised by the voter without confusion. The observation was made in the backdrop of a plea moved by the leader of a party called Puthiya Tamilagam, that had previously been allocated the television symbol. The party lamented that symbols available in the common pool meant for unrecognised parties included the likes of a computer and blackboard, which closely resemble the TV. The petitioner had sought the removal of such homogeneous symbols, that could confuse the voters, once the symbols are printed and fixed on the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs).

It may be recalled that last month, the President of Makkal Needhi Maiam, Kamal Haasan announced his party has been re-allocated the battery torch symbol for the ensuing Assembly polls. The symbol had initially been allocated to MNM for the Lok Sabha polls in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry in 2019. However, in December last year, the Election Commission informed Haasan that the battery torch symbol was allocated to the MGR Makkal Katchi. Incidentally, the chief of the latter party urged the EC to allot it a different symbol, that would remind the public of the legacy of the erstwhile Chief Minister MGR. Having retrieved its symbol, Haasan invoked the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr, on whose birth anniversary the re-allocation happened, and spoke about lighting up the lives of the oppressed.

This symbolic showdown has its origin in the post-Independence era. In 1951-52, when India held its first national polls, 85 pc of the electorate was illiterate. And the way parties could get their supporters to identify them and vote for them was by assigning visual symbols. These symbols are in fact categorised as reserved or free symbols as per the Election Symbols (Reservation and Allotment) (Amendment) Order, 2017. Currently, the reserved symbols have been claimed by about eight national parties and 64 state parties. However, the EC also has a pool of around 200 free symbols that can be claimed by unrecognised regional parties. These include some obscure representations like sliced bread and even toothpaste.

Interestingly, a majority of the hand-drawn symbols in this pool, comprising representations of everyday household items, like a bicycle, pressure cooker, almirah, matchbox happen to the brainchild of a singular artist named MS Sethi. Having served as a draftsman for the ECI in the 1950s, Sethi’s illustrations are still in use, despite him retiring in the 90s. Lately, icons representative of the digital age have also been updated to this pool, such as phone chargers, USB pen drives, computer screens, among others.

India has come a long way since the post-Independence years. As per the 15th official census undertaken in 2011, our literacy rate was pegged at 74 per cent, a milestone that took over seven decades, which still leaves a quarter of our population in the illiterate bracket. Despite that, the common man is a canny voter, and it might be time for India to move beyond electoral symbols that are sometimes misleading or outdated and consider a numeric or generic icon that would give parties more freedom to convey their intentions, rather than retrofit their campaigns to suit random symbols.

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