Election symbols were initially introduced into the Indian electoral process as a practical solution to overcome the challenges posed by widespread illiteracy. They served as simple, recognisable markers that allowed even those who could not read to identify and vote for their preferred candidates and parties. However, over time, these symbols have morphed into tools of monopolistic control by the ruling establishment. Today, the dominance of permanent symbols by major political parties has entrenched their power, marginalising smaller parties and independent candidates, and creating an uneven playing field that undermines the democratic principles of equality and fair competition.

It is a truism that the Indian political field is not a level one for a variety of reasons, which is a matter of great concern, and one on which there has been substantial debate.  One example that we consider here is one that has probably not been given importance in the past.

The use of electoral symbols is particularly significant in a country where a substantial portion of the electorate may be illiterate, relying heavily on visual identifiers. In India, the Election Symbols (Reservation and Allotment) Order of 1968 was introduced with the intent of simplifying this process and ensuring clear differentiation among political entities. However, this system, has led to significant disparities, especially disadvantaging smaller parties and independent candidates who do not have access to permanent symbols. So, does the monopoly over election symbols by major political parties lead to an inherently unfair electoral playing field?

The Election Symbols Order of 1968 sets the framework for the allocation and reservation of symbols to political parties and candidates in India. Recognised national and state parties are granted permanent symbols, which they can use consistently across multiple elections. This permanent symbol becomes an indelible part of the party’s identity, ensuring that voters can easily recognise and associate it with the party’s brand, policies, and history. This system helps in building a strong, recognisable brand that can influence voters’ choices.

Currently, there are six national parties and 54 state parties with permanent symbols. These symbols are crucial for parties as they are the primary means through which parties communicate their identity to voters, especially in regions with low literacy rates. The permanence of these symbols provides a significant advantage to these parties, helping them maintain a consistent presence in the minds of the electorate.

In contrast, smaller parties and independent candidates are required to use free symbols, which are allocated afresh for each election. This lack of a permanent symbol places them at a significant disadvantage. Without a consistent symbol, these parties and candidates struggle to establish a strong and lasting identity, making it harder for voters to recognise and remember them. This inconsistency often leads to voter confusion and can diminish the chances of smaller parties and independents in the electoral contest, no matter how dedicated or effective they might be in advocating for the people’s interests. For example, workers and kisans who had mobilised the people against the repressive policies of the government or against specific legislation harming their interests, and who do not have faith in any of the parties of the ruling establishment, have very little chance of winning the elections as an independent candidate.

The issue of symbol allocation has led to several controversies in recent elections. There have been numerous complaints from smaller parties and independent candidates about their symbols being too similar to those of major parties, leading to confusion among voters. For instance, in the 2019 general elections, several smaller parties alleged that their symbols, such as a flower and torchlight, were being confused with those of larger parties, which potentially affected their electoral performance. This confusion is not just a minor inconvenience but a significant barrier to fair competition, as it can lead to votes being cast mistakenly for the wrong candidate or party.

Moreover, the monopoly over permanent symbols by major parties creates a form of discrimination against parties without such symbols and independent candidates. These smaller entities, regardless of their efforts and dedication to public service, are forced to “swim against the tide,” competing against well-established parties with significant brand recognition. This imbalance highlights a critical flaw in the electoral system, where the playing field is heavily skewed in favour of the bigger, established parties of the ruling dispensation.

The reliance on permanent symbols by major parties also fosters an environment where money and muscle power can dominate, as these parties are often better equipped to use their recognisable symbols to leverage support and resources. This perpetuates a cycle where smaller parties and independents are continually marginalised, unable to compete on an equal footing despite possibly having stronger grassroots support or more relevant policies.

In many countries with high literacy rates, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, and Australia, election symbols are not used. Instead, voters rely on written names on ballots to identify and choose their candidates. In contrast, the continued reliance on symbols in countries like India, where literacy rates are lower, has led to a monopoly over these symbols by dominant political parties. This monopoly underscores a critical disparity, where limited access to information and lower literacy levels force reliance on symbols, thereby giving established parties an unfair advantage and marginalising smaller parties and independent candidates.

To address these issues, it is crucial to reform the current system of symbol allocation. One potential solution is to democratise the process, ensuring that all political entities have fair access to consistent symbols. This could involve rotating symbols more equitably or providing a set of permanent symbols to a broader range of parties and candidates, ensuring that they too can build a recognisable brand over time.

Ultimately, the goal should be to create a truly level playing field where every political entity, regardless of size, has an equal opportunity to reach and engage with voters. This would not only enhance the fairness and integrity of the electoral process but also ensure that the diverse sections of India are represented more equitably in the political arena. In a democracy, every vote should count equally, and every candidate should have a fair chance to compete.

In order to put an end to the domination of the political parties of the status quo over the political process, such issues as the monopoly over symbols have to become a rallying point for a thorough overhaul of the current political process, leading to a people-centred political process.

Source of image: https://www.business-standard.com/article/specials/making-sense-of-election-symbols-116070101273_1.html

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