New Delhi: The humble bicycle has taken centre stage in a bitter battle for control of the party that runs India’s most populous state, underscoring the enduring importance of symbols in the politics of the world’s biggest democracy.
India’s myriad political parties are all represented in the polling booth by pictorial symbols – a system that dates back to the first elections after independence, when fewer than one in five voters could read.
Although literacy rates have vastly improved since then, the symbols are still seen as hugely powerful marketing tools that provide instant brand recognition.
Party names do not appear on the electronic voting machines in poll booths, which show only the name of the candidate alongside the party symbol.
That makes the bicycle a hugely valuable commodity ahead of elections in Uttar Pradesh, India’s biggest state, whose youthful Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, famously cycled around the campaign trail last time around.
“If pitched right, the symbol defines a value proposition,” said the Bangalore-based branding expert Shivakumar Viswanathan.
“The bicycle is a poor man’s transportation so it appeals to the masses – effectively it is saying, ‘I am with you’.”
On Friday, the Election Commission will hold a hearing to determine whether Yadav or his septuagenarian father Mulayam, who is refusing to cede control of the ruling Samajwadi Party (SP), has the right to use the bicycle symbol in the event of a formal split.
If no agreement can be reached, the Commission could rule that neither side can use the symbol and force the party and any breakaway factions to choose new ones with just weeks to go before the polls open.
They could face a difficult choice. The symbols the Commission’s website lists as free include a plane and a car, neither of which has quite the same party-of-the-people connotations.
More baffling are the symbols that appear rooted in another era. These include a harmonium, a steam train, and a dolli – a covered sedan chair once used to carry those who could afford to be carried and now used mostly for wedding ceremonies.
Ban on animals
There are several precedents for a party losing its symbol, such as when the Congress party of India’s first leader Jawaharlal Nehru split in the late 1970s.
When the Election Commission chose to freeze the party symbol showing a cow tending to her calf Nehru’s daughter, party leader Indira Gandhi, chose the current party symbol of a hand, palm facing forward to signify openness.
Reportedly, the choice was initially unpopular with some party members who feared it could remind voters of traffic police – but the symbol stuck nonetheless.
The ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) uses a lotus flower, which is associated with Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.
Perhaps the most successful new symbol of recent years is the broom deployed by the Aam Aadmi (“common man”) Party that won state elections in Delhi two years ago on a promise to sweep away endemic corruption.
Parties are no longer allowed to pick animal symbols after activists raised concerns that it could lead to abuse of real animals.
According to reports, one candidate in the 1950s lost after a live chicken he brought to the polling booth to match his chosen symbol was eaten by vultures – a less than auspicious sign.
The Election Commission has said it wants to settle the dispute over the SP’s bicycle before January 17, when the process of nominating candidates for the first phase of voting in Uttar Pradesh begins.
The Hindustan Times quoted one supporter of Akhilesh Yadav as saying the party could survive the loss of the symbol as “this is the age of WhatsApp and Facebook. Within minutes, the party symbol will get communicated to every village in the state”.
But in rural India things may not be that simple.
“The political party symbol in India is very important,” former chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi said.
“Many people only identify a party with its symbol. If this cycle symbol of the Samajwadi Party is frozen for everyone by the election commission, lots of people may get confused.”