Voting digits

A collectivity is not just a sum of its parts. It is, in fact, a summation — its own, complete, being. When we emerge from the voting booth having pressed that button, heard that beep, with the black ink blob still fresh on our fingers, are we thinking about the part or the whole? What we are doing is, really, to hope for a cumulative outcome without paying heed to the individual. Hence, in that compressed moment, behind that cardboard partition, our eyes look and look only for a certain ‘whole’ — the party and, specifically, for the party’s symbol. It is all about the branding symbol — hand, lotus, sickle, two leaves, the rising sun, broom, elephant and many more.

If the candidate is to have a realistic chance to be elected to Parliament he or she needs to be a party candidate. But, curiously, the Constitution of India is only interested in the elected members of Parliament and not elected parties; in fact, until the anti-defection amendment, it did not even mention the term ‘political party’. We have of course forgotten that significant fact. Since we have turned Parliament into a house of parties, the individual member has become almost irrelevant. He is merely a number adding up to a bigger number that is hopefully more than 272.

When we are not even aware of the party candidate, imagine the plight of the independent candidate! The fact that a party symbol makes a permanent imprint on the mind of the voter makes it impossible for an independent to create even the tiniest impact on the voter. An independent has to choose a new symbol that he needs to popularise within a few weeks. In the history of Indian electoral politics, few independent candidates have won elections even when they had the financial resources and personal stature to contest. This is the reason we find ‘good’ individuals joining parties with which they have little if any ideological commonality. Does this mean that you and I cannot hope to contest any election and win unless we become part of a branded herd? Yes, it does.

Let me return to the election symbol. The idea of the symbol for every party or candidate is a brilliant use of the possibilities of symbolism. Right from the first general elections, aware of the high level of illiteracy in India, the election commission used the ‘visual symbol’ to make the Indian voter — literate or illiterate — equal. Equality among voters was thus ensured, but what about candidates? A symbol is an image, within which is contained not just the party’s identity but also its history and its ideology. But unlike other symbols, here it becomes indelibly attached to the party, thereby creating a permanent association in the voter’s mental eye.

The Election Commission has a deck of symbols. These include, well-established formal party symbols of the mainstream parties. The candidate from a new party or an independent has to choose from the available symbols on offer. One of the biggest challenges for the independent candidate is the ‘symbolised’ strength of the mainstream party candidate. For us, voters, the symbol infers an organisation, a political party, and an independent without such a known symbol will not be taken seriously.

It is time the Election Commission re-considers the entire scene of election symbols. It should go into the question whether symbols by being permanently identified with certain parties do not create a visual monopoly and therefore a political privilege. Can symbols not be designed and distributed afresh once in a decade, parties being obliged to adopt a new symbol once in so-many elections? We need not fear that this would cause confusion in the voter’s mind. Private corporations have changed their emblems, to which the consumer has adjusted effortlessly. The Indian voter has a mature and subtle understanding of politics and we can be rest assured that he will work through this. We also need to consider if Independent candidates can be given a favourable handicap with their symbols having a longer tenure to establish their symbol. Every candidate should have equal chance to capture the voter’s imagination.

Will too many independents create an unstable government? While the problem of too many independents is real, we should keep in mind that in the first independent government of India, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru co-opted individuals with various political leanings and from the larger society into the cabinet. But in today’s political environment, is this possible? We can’t be sure, but if we give every independent candidate an equal chance and force every party to focus on individual candidates rather than rely on a symbolic image, then the quality of the people we vote into Parliament might just improve. For this, the party symbol and its impact have to be assessed and reviewed. Every time we talk about being pragmatic or practical we must remember that the birth of these ‘realistic’ positions was actually in the ideal. Why not begin from there again?

Originally written for The Hindu

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