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Election Symbols: Silent messages play a major role in Indian politics

The elections in India will start this Friday and the polling booths will be opened so that we can elect members of the 18th Lok Sabha. As voters scan the candidate list on electronic voting machines, looking for which button to press, we can safely assume that party symbols will catch their attention before they can read the names of people in the fray. In many cases that will be the only signal needed to cast a vote. The use of easily identifiable symbols dates back to the early years of low literacy in India. Although more than three-quarters of all adults are now classified as literate, the value of these symbols has not diminished. It may even have risen in the recent elections, which were marked by the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as many voters see a vote for the ruling party as a vote for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership. For such voters, it is important to see the BJP’s lotus symbol on the ballot papers. The same advantage can also work for opposition parties. For example, Congress’s hand symbol could also draw votes through a visual cue, without having to read names. The salience of symbols is clearly the equivalent of brand recognition, which explains the prominence given to these icons in party publicity materials. But like all symbols, the symbolism of party insignia is also open to interpretation.

The elections in India will start this Friday and the polling booths will be opened so that we can elect members of the 18th Lok Sabha. As voters scan the candidate list on electronic voting machines, looking for which button to press, we can safely assume that party symbols will catch their attention before they can read the names of people in the fray. In many cases that will be the only signal needed to cast a vote. The use of easily identifiable symbols dates back to the early years of low literacy in India. Although more than three-quarters of all adults are now classified as literate, the value of these symbols has not diminished. It may even have risen in the recent elections, which were marked by the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as many voters see a vote for the ruling party as a vote for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership. For such voters, it is important to see the BJP’s lotus symbol on the ballot papers. The same advantage can also work for opposition parties. For example, Congress’s hand symbol could also draw votes through a visual cue, without having to read names. The salience of symbols is clearly the equivalent of brand recognition, which explains the prominence given to these icons in party publicity materials. But like all symbols, the symbolism of party insignia is also open to interpretation.

The lotus of the BJP offers enormous possibilities for semiotic study. For example, as a flower it can evoke thoughts of a blossoming of fortunes, which ties in quite well with the campaign theme of development and the goal of a ‘Viksit Bharat’ (developed India) by 2047. As a certain type of flower, known because it quickly passes a water puddle germinates as soon as it takes root, it also evokes a sense of expansion. Commentary on the party’s lotus-like proliferation since the early 1990s is common, especially in Hindi. The ruling party’s archrival, the Indian National Congress, is also widely recognized across India because of its election symbol. It will come in handy to position Congress in the public perception as a party that offers a helping hand. Coincidentally or not, this seems to be in sync with the prosperity orientation of the old party. It also lends itself to advertising proposals. ‘Haath badlega haalat’ is the slogan for these polls: the hand will change the circumstances. While a hand symbolizing freedom of choice (as doer) may remind economists of a debate over state intervention, given that the free market is supposed to work on behalf of an ‘invisible hand’, a raised palm can be interpreted more generally as a human gesture that expresses certainty. This reading of the congress symbol is also consistent with the party’s promise of ‘nyay’ or justice, an abstract value that can be secured at many levels and in multiple contexts. Consider, for example, social justice, alternative approaches that have animated identity politics since the early 1990s.

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The lotus of the BJP offers enormous possibilities for semiotic study. For example, as a flower it can evoke thoughts of a blossoming of fortunes, which ties in quite well with the campaign theme of development and the goal of a ‘Viksit Bharat’ (developed India) by 2047. As a certain type of flower, known because it quickly passes a water puddle germinates as soon as it takes root, it also evokes a sense of expansion. Commentary on the party’s lotus-like proliferation since the early 1990s is common, especially in Hindi. The ruling party’s archrival, the Indian National Congress, is also widely recognized across India because of its election symbol. It will come in handy to position Congress in the public perception as a party that offers a helping hand. Coincidentally or not, this seems to be in sync with the prosperity orientation of the old party. It also lends itself to advertising proposals. ‘Haath badlega haalat’ is the slogan for these polls: the hand will change the circumstances. While a hand symbolizing freedom of choice (as doer) may remind economists of a debate over state intervention, given that the free market is supposed to work on behalf of an ‘invisible hand’, a raised palm can be interpreted more generally as a human gesture that expresses certainty. This reading of the congress symbol is also consistent with the party’s promise of ‘nyay’ or justice, an abstract value that can be secured at many levels and in multiple contexts. Consider, for example, social justice, alternative approaches that have animated identity politics since the early 1990s.

Party symbols are powerful. That is why preserving the original is so crucial for the warring factions of parties that have parted ways. These symbols are the key to party recognition. Decades ago, Marxists were lucky enough to acquire the communist icon of a sickle, hammer and star. In 2022, only one section of a divided Shiv Sena could claim its bow and arrow, resulting in a row over it. Party symbols are also useful. That is why they are often used literally. Samajwadi Party leaders never miss an opportunity to cycle around. Supporters of the Aam Aadmi Party use the broom as a clean-up campaign. Silent messages work. That’s why lotuses bloom on walls and hands of solidarity raise in the air.

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