The Indian National Congress being the oldest political party has witnessed several transformations in terms of high command (from being a loosely held party under Nehru to a closely knitted family party under his descendants), views & target audience, but the most interesting evolution has been it’s party symbol which was changed atleast twice.
The party under the stewardship of Nehru had the symbol ‘Pair of bullocks carrying a yoke’ which struck a chord with masses who were predominantly farmers.
After the death of Nehru and controversial death of Shastri, Indira Gandhi carried the legacy of Congress forward. With majority of the population being illiterate, lot of importance was given in promoting the party symbol and Indira became face of the party.
In 1969, due to internal conflicts within the Congress party, Indira decided to break out and form a party of her own, with majority of the Congress party members in support of her in the new party which was named Congress(R) and the older Congress named themselves Congress(O).
Since the bullocks symbol had become synonymous with the Congress, Indira tried to use it for her new party but due to an appeal from Congress(O), she was deprived the traditional symbol. Since the stalwarts at Congress(O) were involved in freedom struggle, they tried to justify that they were the true inheritors of the traditional symbol which was well established by then (and had even led Congress to victory in 4 elections).
Indira spent a considerable time on a new symbol and finally chose “Cow and Calf”.
Since Indira had established herself as a very powerful brand, she had to channelize this brand loyalty into this new symbol which had become the electoral identity of her political party. An aggressive campaign was launched to bring awareness of this new symbol to masses.
In spite of the breakout and a new symbol, to the surprise of analysts, opposition & Congress(O), she won a landslide victory in the 1971 elections because she had established herself as a very powerful brand (due to Bangladesh liberation) and had connected well with the masses, especially the poor due to her “Garibi Hatao” (Eradicate Poverty) slogans.
After the emergency of mid 1970s which witnessed the death of democracy and Sanjay’s follies, Indira finally opted for fresh elections in 1977. After the humiliating defeat of Congress(R) in 1977 elections, conflicts arose within the party and several senior politicians including Jagjivan Ram not only opposed but also quit the party. Some of the partymen who were loyal to her during emergency had begun to blame her for the debacle of 1977 and the party witnessed a difference in opinion which led to 2 camps i.e one with Indira and the other against Indira. In order to tackle this infighting, Indira decided to again split the party and carve out a new party called Congress(I) in which “I” stood for “Indira” and thereby taking all of her loyal partymen into her new party.
In order to contest for the next elections, Indira had to choose a new party symbol. Since her earlier party’s earlier symbol of cow with calf had become a mockery throughout the country where not only the opposition but also the common man compared Cow to Indira and Calf to Sanjay, she had decided to discard that symbol and come up with a new one. But at the same time, the Election Commission (EC) had frozen the symbol and asked Indira to select a new symbol as soon as possible.
There is an interesting anecdote about the symbol selection. When Indira was in Andhra Pradesh with P.V.Narasimha Rao, Buta Singh had visited the office of EC to discuss about the new symbol and EC provided him with choices of an elephant, a bicycle & an open palm. Buta, confused with the choices, decided to let Indira take that decision and informed her of the choices over phone. EC had insisted Buta to select the symbol by the next morning, failing which, the party would have to contest without a symbol. This became a matter of concern to the top party workers who along with Indira brainstormed for hours over the given choices and finally upon the insistence of RK Rajarathnam who suggested that the open palm due to its simplicity would be easily recognizable by the people, Indira decided to select it. The following is a short video snippet in which Rajarathnam recollects the event:
The next morning, when Buta Singh called Indira to find out her decision, it turned out into a comedy of errors. Due to his thick accent and pronounciation, when he said “Haath theek rahega?” (will hand be fine?), Indira mistook it for “haathi” (will elephant be fine?) to which she said no and said “Haath” to which again Buta said “Yes. Thats what I am also saying. Haathi”. Finally, Indira gave up and handed over the phone to P.V.Narasimha Rao. PVN, master of more than 15 Indian and foreign languages immediately realized that Buta was actually saying “Haath” and asked “Panjaa?” (palm) to which Buta affirmed. That was how the hand became the party symbol for Congress party. The open palm symbol was earlier used by All India Forward Bloc (AIFB Ruikar) for the 1951 elections but was slightly different with fingers parting. That symbol did not last long as AIFB had disbanded the party within an year after 1952 elections. It remained unused for the next 3 decades till it was offered to Indira in 1980 (in the form of a new design with fingers close to each other). That symbol was an instant hit (Indira came back to power in 1980) and has been in existence ever since.
It is interesting to note that the symbols which Indira rejected i.e Elephant & Bicycle, were later chosen by parties who went on to gain significant foothold in Uttar Pradesh. The BSP chose elephant and the SP chose Bicycle.