On a day when the Akhilesh Yadav faction of the Samajwadi Party wrested the party symbol of the cycle from the other faction led by his own father Mulayam, it may be heretical to question the relevance of party symbols.
Indeed, there is nothing symbolic about symbols in our elections. Yet, it must be said at the risk of sounding sacrilegious that nothing has dumbed down our elections all these years more than symbols.
When Lalu Prasad of RJD exhorts the crowd to press the "lantern" in the electronic voting machine (EVM), he is reducing his candidates to homogenous commodities bereft of life and intelligence. Goods and services need trademarks to sell and worm into the hearts of customers both existing and wannabe. But political parties peddle neither goods nor services.
They instead sell ideas and promises. In this respect, political parties are more akin to professionals who are debarred from advertising in many jurisdictions, including India. A professional’s track record is supposed to be his best advertisement. And a political party’s best advertisement ought to be its own record and manifesto as well as the calibre of the individual candidate. Be that as it may.
One may turn around and say in India that symbols are needed more because our electorate by and large is illiterate. But then they are intelligent enough to tell between falsehood and truth and sift tall promises from doable ones. Freebies are of course lapped up as something irrevocably due to them but they seldom influence the outcome of the elections.
|A political party’s best advertisement ought to be its own record and manifesto as well as the calibre of the individual candidate. (Photo: Reuters)|
In any case, the Election Commission can always mention the name of the candidate and the party he/she represents both in English and vernacular on the ballot paper or EVM. Even the illiterate is literate enough to read names.
When symbols take centrestage, they inevitably belittle the candidates and end up commodifying them. Indeed symbols have contributed heavily towards the electorate voting blindly for the party they like without bothering about the credentials of the candidate standing on the party ticket.
The other factor that has contributed to the dumbing down of our politics and legislative actions and behaviour is the legally sanctioned practice of issuing a party whip that commands peremptorily our legislators into meek and worshipful compliance.
Free speech and conscience votes have been the sad victims of party whip, defying which calls for extraordinary courage. For, the price is expulsion from both the party and the legislative body where he/she showed bravado unless they are able to break away with two-thirds of the party members in the legislature. Be that as it may again.
|Symbols have contributed heavily towards the electorate voting blindly for the party they like.|
Coming back to the subject, it is for our political parties to ponder if excessive importance given to symbols has marginalised the personalities involved unless they happen to be party bigwigs. To be sure, a Nandan Nilekani holds his own in his Bangalore constituency in the hustings but that is more an exception than the norm. In the hurly burly of Indian hustings, the party and its symbol elbows out personalities not the least because they are self-effacing.
Mulayam and Akhilesh fought for the SP symbol cycle so fiercely because they both wanted the dumbing down of our elections to continue. That the literate youth are solidly behind Akhilesh and would have voted for him, cycle or motorcycle, didn’t lull or comfort him or his faction. Instead his faction wrested the cycle in a manner of winning a trophy throwing all its might.
One may again turn around and say other democracies too use symbols. Incidentally, the Republican Party of the US serendipitously shares the elephant with our own Bahujan Samaj Party. But that doesn’t in any way make the use of symbols desirable.
It is another matter that our political parties would instinctively oppose this suggestion with the same gusto as they all oppose the invidious first-past-the-post system when many European nations have embraced the more equitable proportional representation system.