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What do India’s political logos symbolize?

Religious beliefs and cultural values have largely directed how India's political parties choose their emblems

January 29, 2024 1:10 pm

Narendra Modi. Photo: Bloomberg
Narendra Modi. Photo: Bloomberg

New Delhi: India’s treasure trove of symbols, such as the lotus flower, Om and the sun, has long offered pictorial identities to customs, cultures and creeds.

With Indian elections looming large, symbols continue to play an irreplaceable role across the political landscape, lending identities to more than 1,200 political parties.

The symbols — often objects in daily use such as bicycles, brooms, birds and other animals, and scenes from everyday life — are common motifs.

The Election Commission of India offers a raft of symbols from which political parties choose to represent their ideologies and agendas to potential voters.

Why are symbols needed?

Writer and journalist Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay told DW that “when they [parties] choose, they’re essentially, somehow or the other, trying to connect with the audience very strongly.”

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the main opposition Indian National Congress (INC) have had changing symbols over the years — each hoping to broaden their appeal to voters.

Around the time of India’s independence from Britain in 1947, the question of immediate universal suffrage was debated considering the country’s low literacy rate — about 12% at the time.

Symbols were considered a sure and straightforward way to help most of India’s then 340 million voters find their chosen parties and associated candidates on the ballot.

India has come a long way since the days of such low literacy.

“Symbols will remain critical in Indian polls,” said N Bhaskara Rao, chairman of the New Delhi-based Center for Media Studies. “Increases in education levels will not make symbols in polls redundant or irrelevant.”

He pointed out that electronic media outlets make good use of the party symbols in their election coverage.

The winding course of splits and mergers

Though some parties stuck to their symbols from the start, the BJP and the INC have had a meandering tale of changing fates and faces.

Since its inception in 1885, the INC has gone through several phases of structural reorganization and three symbols.

The BJP was formed in 1980, having emerged from its parent party, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), formed in 1951.

For India’s first general elections, the two parties appeared with the first of their chosen symbols. The INC, by two oxen yoked together and the BJS by a “deepak” or an oil lamp.

The first symbols

In an overwhelmingly agrarian society, yoked oxen were commonly used to till farmland, preparing it to sow seeds.

The INC’s clear focus on a socialist future for India was simply riding on the back of its farmers, much like the two oxen.

The BJS on the other hand, founded by Dr. Syama Prasad Mukherjee, was set up as the political wing of the pro-Hindu group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

The BJS’s election symbol, the deepak, is instantly identifiable to its potential Hindu voters. Such lamps are commonly used during temple prayers during which offerings are made to Hindu deities.

The cow dominates

By 1971, the INC, owing to ideological differences, had split between the old guard and those who followed the younger Indira Gandhi to form a new faction called the Congress (R), with the “R” standing for “Requisition.”

Needing a new party symbol for the upcoming elections, in what many have called Congress’ Hindu-pandering politics, Indira Gandhi chose the symbol of a cow suckling her calf.

In the book “The Case That Shook India: The Verdict That Led to the Emergency,” Prashant Bhushan wrote about court proceedings in which the High Court passed a judgment that Indira Gandhi, the prime minister at the time, was found guilty of electoral malpractices, which disqualified her from holding public office for six years.

That eventually led to India’s imposing an authoritarian emergency in 1975, suspending constitutional rights.

One of the arguments before the court was that the INC party led by Indira Gandhi wanted to use the cow to evoke Hindu religious sentiments.

The hand and the lotus

From 1970 to 1980, Indian politics went through a period of extreme flux. The seemingly invincible INC lost its first general elections, and the BJP emerged as the main opposition party, complete with a new leader, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and a new sign.

In an attempt to rebrand itself, the INC chose what remains to this day its defining symbol: an outstretched palm.

The BJP chose the orange lotus.

The hand was inspired by the deity of the temple, according to a Hindustan Times interview with V. Muralidhara from South India’s Hemambika Temple.

Muralidhara said the then-out-of-power Indira Gandhi “took [the] hand as the symbol for the Congress party in the next general election.”

Recently, posts claiming that the INC’s hand was adopted from Islam went viral on social media — but fact-checking agencies such as Newschecker and Factly debunked it as having no factual basis.

According to Nilanjan, the “hand actually became popular by introducing it as a hand of Indira Gandhi in the 1980 elections.”

The BJP’s orange lotus in comparison, has far less ambiguity as to what it symbolizes.

The pink lotus is an extremely prevalent religious motif across Asia.

As a Hindu motif, gods and goddesses either hold a lotus or sit on it while in meditation. In many ritual practices too, the flower is a common offering. The pink lotus is also India’s national flower.

The color orange is widely worn by Hindu ascetics, and the RSS’s own symbol is an orange flag flying in the wind.

In recent times, the ruling BJP has used its election symbol on a wide range of government documents, and in 2019 on the Indian passport. The G20 summit hosted by India in 2023 carried an orange lotus as its official logo.

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