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As elections in the world’s biggest democracy are drawing to an end, the question on everyone’s lips undoubtedly is to whom their friends and relatives might have voted for. The answer one might get ranges from ‘to a specific party symbol’ or ‘to a particular party’ or to even the ‘NOTA’ option in the case of the intellectual type.

In many constituencies, the general awareness about their respective candidates and about the prospective winner among them doesn’t seem to exist at all, except in the case of the most popular ones. In this so called ‘Democratic process’, the focus is on the party symbol rather than the candidate himself or on his individual credentials.

party symbolsThe origin for this tendency in voters’ minds needs to be understood and this necessitates a debate with criticism about the electoral process itself and its structure along with the subtle politics behind it.

In spite of the multi crore rupees ad campaigning done by the government to stress on the moral responsibility of the people to exercise their constitutional right as well as duty to vote, only 73% of the population have turned out to vote which still represents a sharp increase in voter turnout in recent decades.

When roughly 30% of the population abstains from voting, the remaining 70% of the votes is shared by each candidate and the one with the highest share among the 70% is declared winner for the whole electorate including for those who abstained from voting. Imagine a winner with a vote share lesser than even the 30% that restrained from voting and how absurd it could be.

This restraint shown by voters from exercising their right & duty poses huge problems and challenges to the Indian constitution. This worrying trend which reflects the loss of faith in some sections of the population on the democratic form of elections has led to a hurried scrambling for remedies through multiple approaches.

One possible explanation for this could be the general disappointment in many sections of the society over the perceived unlikelihood of any immediate positive changes to occur in their livelihoods whether they cast their vote or not. This gloomy outlook started appearing in the early 1980s.

This can be best personified in the song ‘Raaman aandaalum, raavanan aandaalum’ of the 1978 Rajinikanth starring film ‘Mullum malarum’, the rough translation of which is ‘I don’t care if Rama rules or Raavan rules’. The evident cynicism in that song was well received by the Tamil populace then. Thus the argument that no candidate or party is different from each other and that no tangible solutions could be found by existing parties or structures, was gaining a stronger foothold.

In response to this attitude, the Election commission introduced the 49-O option for people who didn’t want to vote for any of the candidates and warned the people of the consequences of not voting at all, such as their votes being cast as counterfeit votes by miscreants.

Rule 49-O was introduced in 1961 as a rule in The Conduct of Elections Rules under which if a voter exercises the 49-O option, he has to disclose and register all his personal details like name and address with the booth officer.  This lack of any privacy and protection for those exercising 49-O along with the general fears prevailing at that time that those exercising it will be regarded by the Police as terrorist suspects and that they will be exempted from any government beneficiary schemes and rights, ended up daunting people from exercising it. Interestingly, this forms the backdrop of the soon to be released satirical Tamil movie ’49-O’ starring yesteryear comedian ‘Goundamani’ and the troubles and threats, the role essayed by him faces from a local politician after exercising 49-O is said to be its central theme.

Keeping the above problem in mind, an NGO called PUCL (People's Union for Civil Liberties) filed a PIL to approve and validate ‘NOTA‘(none of the above) option while preserving the anonymity of the voter exercising it.  But the Election commission of India refuses to take these NOTA votes in to account stating that the primary purpose of NOTA is to prevent counterfeit votes and that they cannot play any part in determining the winning candidate. Even if a candidate gets lesser number of votes than the total number of NOTA votes in his constituency, he can still become the winner if he has garnered more votes than the other candidates. Thus with its efficacy being so limited and unsubstantial, NOTA has received only lukewarm response so far. While NOTA is viewed by many political parties as a mere inconvenience, its relevance and powers should be increased in the coming years, according to political observers.

During the 2009 Lok sabha elections, the Pudukottai parliamentary constituency was eliminated which enraged the voters of that erstwhile constituency very much, resulting in 13,680 votes cast for NOTA, the highest number for NOTA votes registered in any election in Indian history.

However a different set of questions arise about the real purpose of NOTA. In the aftermath of the assembly elections held in the states of Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh , Chatisgarh and Mizoram during December 2013, the general consensus is that people belonging to higher caste orders chose to vote for NOTA instead of voting for candidates who were either Dalits or scheduled Tribes. Thus the national Daily ‘The Hindu’ raises the question ‘Is the real purpose of NOTA is to register the discontent of the public over existing candidates or is it a powerful weapon to impose caste based politics on Dalits.

To understand these views and questions raised, the structure of the electoral system should be analyzed. At the time when India gained independence from Britain, the electoral process was an extension of the implementation of the Constitutional authority. When this western form of Governance was introduced in India, it was subject to intense debate and argument owing to the existing social and cultural environment in India. When leaders like Rajaji argued that only people with considerable wealth should be considered as eligible for voting, Ambedkar and other Dalit leaders opposed that viewpoint and introduced constructive reforms enabling the weaker sections to vote as well. But Politicians have used this aspect of the reforms to their own gain as instruments of power.

At this juncture, we should acknowledge the ‘Kudavolai’ system for electing representatives that was practiced by the later Cholas during the 10th century AD. In this system, untouchables, those who had committed any of the five cardinal sins and their kin, who had received bribes or committed robbery and so on, are not eligible to be candidates according to inscriptions unearthed in Uthiramerur. And one who had remained in office for five years could not contest again as the presence of newcomers was a must. Thus from the times of the Kudavolai system to today’s democratic form of elections, the electoral system has undergone many reforms and continues to grow in a progressive manner and the Election commission of India which has undergone many changes in the past is at a crucial juncture now requiring urgent and much needed reforms.        

The importance of a fundamental aspect of the electoral process namely political symbols or insignias has long been eclipsed. When elections were first introduced in 1937, the concept of party symbols was not in use then. But since the illiterate masses could not read & identify their candidate names, the practice of using different colored ballot boxes was followed. Since the congress party was allotted yellow colored ballot boxes then, prominent theatre personalities like K.B. Sundarambal and Avvai Shanmugam used to entice the public by their clever association of the yellow color with the medicinal and auspicious properties of turmeric (which shares the same name as that of color ‘yellow’ in Tamil language).  Thus the masses associated yellow color (in turn congress party) with promise of prosperity and auspiciousness in life.

Thus Political symbols which first appeared in such a manner were rapidly transformed and they started having a stronger grip over the voter’s consciousness. Political parties, their agendas, reforms and progressive ideas were eclipsed by party symbols and such has become the prominence of party symbols.

This mentality applies to most of the public including the uneducated rural masses. Party symbols have thus firmly entrenched themselves in the people’s psyche. They have become brand icons that can easily target and reach masses even beyond the borders of ideological differences. This is a subtle politics in itself and the politics of these party symbols should be construed as techniques.

A political party presents and promotes its party symbol at all places and at all times thus transforming it (the symbol) in to an eternal and powerful force.  By doing so, the party symbol acquires more prominence than the party or its agenda itself. And that is exactly what politicians desire, as ideologies and the problems they pose have become undesirable. And this (prominence of symbols) easily gets more firmly rooted in the minds of the Tamil populace who are well known for their very emotional nature.

Hence such party symbols created and nurtured over such long periods of time are the primary investments of politicians. It is only understandable that it is a party’s symbol that gets attacked first and is desecrated by enemies that seek to destroy the party itself.

The real credentials of the candidate take the back seat while influencing voters’ decision making. This creates a huge gap between the voter and the candidate and this is also one of the main reasons why criminals are able to wield considerable power over politics.

This article doesn’t imply that parties have no significance at all in the voters’ minds. It only intends to highlight the overpowering & dominating tendencies hidden beneath these symbols under the pretext of democracy. Let us take for example, an independent candidate who is really sincere and dedicated to the progress and well being of his nation. His chances of being included in to a well established party are very slim and even his party symbol will only be allotted to him just 15 days before the elections. Under the present, strict guidelines of the EC, his symbol or awareness about him will never reach most of his electorate. But on the contrary, those well established party symbols which had been known to the public for the past 40 or 50 years will easily catch the attention of the people. Can we call such a biased system a truly democratic form of election?

Under the present conditions wherein an independent candidate gets his symbol allotted to him only 15 days before elections, it is very difficult for the people to know and understand about the symbol in such a short span of time and it is highly improbable that they vote for it.

Therefore I would like to pose the question ‘why should not the Election Commission which has already incorporated numerous reforms, abolish party symbols’? And all the decades old well established party symbols should be removed and for each election process, candidates should be allotted fresh new symbols in parity with independent candidates. And moreover a political party should not be allowed to allot the same symbol to all of its candidates contesting in various constituencies. For each different constituency the party should be made to allot a unique symbol so that it becomes necessary for the voter to know more about the candidate himself, rather than the party symbol or party itself. And it is also ensured that only the best candidate who is most dedicated to the well being of his constituency becomes the winner. And when a candidate who had worked for the well being of the constituency irrespective of whether he or she is in power contests, only the long time achievements of the candidate rather than the temporary and short lived symbol gets registered in the minds of voters.

When a candidate does not have the backing of a well established party symbol to work for his success, he or she will desire to work hard for his constituency, whether in power or not and thus earn the goodwill of the people. And people also will show more interest to take part in such an electoral process.

Such a system is not entirely new as a similar one has already been implemented in local Panchayat elections. And for the question that no other country has such a system in practice, why shouldn’t we be pioneers and take the first step towards it? For those who might ask if this is really feasible at all, it is possible in today’s modern world where new ideas and experiments are very much welcome. Counter arguments to this idea keeping the coming generations in mind can be put forth. 

(Gouthama Siddarthan - A noted columnist, short-story writer and a micro-political critic in Tamil. You can contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

Translation by Vijay ram

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