Parties, recognition and their symbols

Political parties, to achieve recognition by the Election Commission, must have considerable following; recognition is granted in the form of exclusive symbols for identification by voters at the time of elections. Therefore, the argument that once a symbol, always a symbol cannot be accepted. A, party losing such a recognition, can be rightly deprived of its symbol, even if voters identify the party with that symbol. Well, these are momentuous decisions from the Supreme Court in the recent case of Subramanian Swamy vs. Election Commission of India, through its Secretary.

The judgment, delivered by Justices Ashok Bhan and V.S.Sirpurkar on September 23 can be accessed from the judis site. Swamy, who heads (or purportedly heads) the Janata Party which ruled the country between 1977 and 1979, among other things, argued that symbols are the intellectual property of the political parties, and cannot be lightly taken away on the specious ground that their vote share has declined over the years. The Court found his arguments attractive, but could not come to his rescue. I am unable to understand the compelling necessity for the EC to deprive Janata Party its symbol. The SC, in fact, left it open whether the EC ought to freeze the symbol, or make it a free symbol, as the issue was not argued in the High court or before the Supreme Court. In this case, Swamy’s plea was to freeze it, but the EC made it a free symbol, so that other recognised parties could claim it. No one would seriously believe Swamy if he suggests that the symbol, if reallotted to other parties, would amount to transferring the party’s advantage to the new party. But from the EC’s point of view, what can be the reason? Dearth of permissible symbols?

I am also unable to understand the relationship between recognition, and the grant of symbols and the need for recognition itself – which formed the basis of this judgment. It is because an unrecognised party contesting for the first time, can sweep the polls, on the basis of a newly allotted common symbol to its candidates. Recognition is required only for retaining a symbol in subsequent elections. If a political party goes into oblivion, and returns to the mainstream after a lull, should it be deprived of its old symbol, on the basis of its interim electoral performance? If there can be no restriction on the number of political parties that can enter an electoral fray, the EC must review its outdated stand on recognition and symbols, especially when smaller parties command huge influence in this coalition era – a plea which Swamy put forward in vain before the Bench.

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  • Firstly, the link to the Supreme Court’s judgment gives an error.

    Secondly, dearth of symbols can be a problem. When there are 50 or more candidates in some constituencies, finding distinct and recognizable symbols (using only black/white) for our still significantly illiterate population is not exactly trivial.

    Anyway, reserving symbols as you suggest is going to create problems. The Janata Party symbol itself is that of the former Bharatiya Lok Dal which we learn from Wikipedia was “formed at the end of 1974 through the fusion of seven parties opposed to the autocratic rule of Indira Gandhi, including the Swatantra Party, the Utkal Congress, the Bharatiya Kranti Dal, and the Socialist Party.” So, if we accept Dr. Swamy’s contention that the election symbol is the intellectual property of the party which used it, then we could as well ask the tangled question of “whose intellectual property?”
    This is only going to lead another round of useless litigation with different parties claiming that a particular symbol is their intellectual property and add to the already swelling backlog of cases in the Supreme Court.

    The problem of symbols comes out of having a largely illiterate population and unfortunately, we are nowhere close to addressing that problem.

  • Suresh, I understand that the Judis has withdrawn the direct link facility to its judgments. So one has to feed the relevant details to get the judgment by using the judgment date option.

  • A symbol cannot be treated as intellectual property of a party.
    That would strech the idea of
    intellectual property too far. The EC might argue that although a party uses the symbol in polls, that does not
    mean that it can be used a ‘trade
    mark’ for all times to come.Allotting a symbol does not amount to transferring all rights
    including ownership rights to a
    party. Often same symbol is
    allotted to two different parties
    in two different states. The number of symbols is also limited.
    Perhaps now it should be revised and expanded. Swamy has claimed that the symbol is now frozen.
    But the writing on the wall was
    clear as Janata Party continued to
    fail miserably at polls.