When India’s 900 million eligible voters go to the polling booths for this spring’s general election, they might cast their vote for a kite. Or a comb. Or a mango.
These are three of the hundreds of symbols that appear on electronic voting machines in India, each representing one of the nearly 2,300 political parties vying for more than 500 seats in the lower house of parliament in seven stages of voting through late May.
You might also encounter a ceiling fan. Or a coconut. Or an umbrella.
Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a symbol — he’s a lotus flower (the symbol of his political party, chosen because it’s India’s national flower and also because it’s the flower upon which the Hindu goddesses of wealth and knowledge sit.
Most of the symbols look like emojis on your smartphone or illustrations from a children’s dictionary or encyclopedia.
Any everyday object that most Indians would be familiar with can be an electoral symbol. A kettle? A kitchen sink? A sofa? They’re all qualified to represent political parties.
To make sure voters get the message, parties’ symbols are printed on political banners, splashed across the stage at political rallies and emblazoned on the covers of election manifestos, documents released by parties to make their case to voters.
The icons have been part of India’s electoral process since its first democratic election. It was 1951, and India had recently gained independence from British colonial rule. But how could a country hold an election when about 80 percent of its population were illiterate and so couldn’t read the names on the ballot paper? Symbols helped.
“Symbols made it easier for people to associate [themselves] with political parties. They are like the logos of companies,” says Kavita Karan, a professor at Southern Illinois University.
In the decades since India held its first general election, its literacy rate has shot up. According to the 2011 census, which is the most recent, 74 percent of Indians are literate compared to 18 percent in, say, the 1950s. Does that make symbols obsolete?
Political analyst Biswanath Chakraborty doesn’t think so. Literacy in India may be high, but functional literacy — which means the ability to read and comprehend — is still not more than 50 percent, he says. According to a 2011 study, only a quarter of those counted by the census as “literate” could read a second grade text.
Also, Indians are used to voting for symbols rather than names.
“Even after 100 percent literacy in India, I think it won’t be easy for us to prepare the ballot only based on the name of the candidate,” says Chakraborty. Symbols also help reduce the confusion during polling when lots of candidates are in the race, he says.
Parties can select from a list of symbols published by the election commission, an independent body which oversees the elections. Many of the symbols were drawn by hand by the late draftsman M.S. Sethi, who retired from the commission in 1992. A cauliflower, a soap dish, a stapler are all part of the stockpile. According to an election commission circular from March, there are nearly 200 symbols currently unclaimed by any party.
Parties can also propose a symbol if they’re not satisfied with any of the options in the commission’s reserve. But there are some rules.
The symbols are supposed to be neutral so as not to influence voters. For example, a symbol with a religious connotation or one that represents a particular community would not be permitted. (There have been some petitions to India’s courts demanding that Modi’s party give up its lotus blossom.)
Historical monuments like the Taj Mahal are a no-no for similar reasons — people might pick them out of national pride.
In 1991, the election commission ruled out using any type of fauna as a symbol after some animal rights activists raised concerns. They feared people would attack or torture a creature if it embodied a politician or party they didn’t support.
The electoral symbols don’t just represent a party. They also tell the story of India’s socioeconomic transformation, says Chakraborty. Some of the earliest symbols depicted objects from a mostly rural India: a plow, a cow, a bullock cart. Then in the 1960s and 1970s, symbols like a tractor, a truck and an electric pole made their way into the commission’s list.
New to the 2019 catalog are a laptop, a computer mouse and a USB stick.
“This tells us how India has gone from being a rural country to an urbanized, modern India,” says Chakraborty.
A symbol has an emotional appeal. People should be able to relate to it, says Karan. Often, a symbol represents a party’s ideology or what change it hopes to bring in society, she adds.
The open-palmed hand of the Indian National Congress, India’s main opposition party, represents hard work. With a broom as its symbol, the Aam Aadmi Party, a regional party in northern India, hopes to “clean the filth that has permeated India’s government and legislature,” it said in a 2013 statement.
But some of the new symbols added by the election commission may seem rather unconventional. Perhaps that’s why no one has claimed the nail clippers.
“Given the number of parties and independent candidates, it appears that the election commission is running out of relatable symbols, so they are giving away these odd and funny symbols,” says Karan.
This year’s contest is largely between the lotus and the open-palmed hand. But who knows, maybe in the future India will witness an election where a pair of nail clippers is pitted against a tube of toothpaste.
Sushmita Pathak is an NPR producer.