The Election Commission’s grant of the bicycle symbol to Akhilesh Yadav on January 16 completes the complex transfer of power from father to son, a process that arguably started the moment Akhilesh stepped in as chief minister in March 2012.
The Election Commission’s decision to allot the bicycle to Akhilesh makes sense, as the chief minister currently commands the vast majority of the party’s organisation and cadres. In the documents provided to the commission, 90 per cent of the party’s MLAs, 82 per cent of the MLCs, 62 per cent of the MPs, 61 per cent of the national executive members, and 77 per cent of the party’s 5,731 national convention delegates, have pledged their support to the chief minister, over the party’s formal head.
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The commission was even helped in its decision by Mulayam Singh Yadav himself, who, curiously, did not put up much of a fight, neglecting to submit even a proper dossier to the commissioners.
This is not the first time that the ECI has been called to arbitrate over the allotment of a symbol to a splitting party. An earlier and famous case occurred in 1969, when the Congress split in two. Both factions then entered into a bitter fight over their respective symbols. The Congress (O) hoped to take the spinning wheel, while the Congress (R) objected that it was too close to the national flag. The latter had applied for the symbol of a child. Keen to avoid the appearance of taking sides, the Election Commission denied both parties their first choices and granted them their second choices: A woman working at a spinning wheel for Congress (O) and a cow with calf for the Congress (R).
The opposition, including the Jana Sangh, protested against the decision, objecting that the cow had a religious connotation and accused the Congress of pandering to Hindu voters. The Congress (R) remarked that the Jana Sangh’s own symbol, the lamp, also had a religious connotation, since the design matched those of lamps used in temples.
When the Congress split further in 1978, the Devraj Urs faction kept the spinning wheel, while the Congress (I) — for Indira — adopted the hand, the party’s current symbol.
Another instance of conflict over symbols occurred in 1987, when the Lok Dal split between the Charan Singh and Devi Lal factions.
Chaudhary Devi Lal fought with the ECI over the choice of successive new symbols, consistently rejected by the commission. When he eventually came to power in 1989, as V.P. Singh’s deputy prime minister, he pushed for the reduction of the number of commissioners from three to one, effectively sacking those who had earlier obstructed him.
Parties attach considerable importance to their symbols, as they do not simply stand as a neutral signifier, a convenient way for voters to visually identify parties on a ballot paper. Party symbols also reflect a party’s identity, values and, sometimes, social base.
Initially, the commission allotted symbols unilaterally — and quite randomly — only to parties that had garnered more than three initially, then four per cent, of the national vote. From 1968 onwards, parties obtained a say in the choice of their symbol, which gave them an opportunity to choose meaningful visual representations of their identity.
Thus, the Congress’s hand is an embodiment of care and protection, a symbol that it caters to the weak. The BJP’s lotus — India’s national flower — symbolises both the national and the religious, embodying the party’s affinity for cultural nationalism. The BSP’s elephant is an auspicious symbol that connects with Buddhism, as well as being an embodiment of might. In pre-colonial times, the elephant was an instrument of justice, used literally to trample upon those who committed injustice. The Samajwadi Party’s choice of the bicycle in 1993 was meant to identify the party with the common man, by associating it with their preferred mode of transport: A sturdy, reliable, affordable vehicle enabling the common man to go forward.
Symbols also matter for practical purposes as they are used to mark territory with the visual presence of parties, during and between elections. Displayed on the bonnet of SUVs, party symbols are markers of power and, in many instances, providers of roadside immunity.
Party symbols are also stamped on goods distributed as per the ruling party’s schemes, ensuring that the beneficiaries know to whom they owe those goods. When the Samajwadi Party distributed laptops, the machines came with bicycle wallpapers that could not be removed without making the operating system crash.
Despite the formidable recent growth of telecommunications, media penetration in rural Uttar Pradesh remains low. Stamping symbols over billboards and bags of subsidised wheat is a more effective means of communication than any other media campaign or press release about the government’s actions.
Changing symbols at the last minute would have been detrimental to Akhilesh’s campaign. It would have made it difficult for him to claim paternity for the many schemes that his government has introduced or developed over the past five years. He now needs to make up for the time wasted feuding with his own family and reconnect with voters through rallies and, yes, cycle yatras. He also needs to underline the achievements of his government now that he has achieved control over his party.
In recent elections, voters have rewarded hardworking chief ministers who provide tangible benefits against contestants who deliver speeches that focus on the promise of future achievements. In UP, as in Bihar, West Bengal or Tamil Nadu, the chief minister succeeded over the past five years in building the image of a leader who delivers on his promises, of a leader who provides tangible benefits to the people beyond caste barriers. This image associated with a recognisable symbol is a strong asset against a towering adversary who, since 2014, has delivered few tangible benefits, delaying the promise of better days.