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The signs the people read

March 26, 2013

File photo

PART of a party’s identity as the election symbols are, they do tell a story of sorts of their own and are a source of banter and argument which is sustained by the people’s own reading of the symbols. Even where the symbol appears too obvious, the undoubted popular ability to create nuance relating to the picture brings out varied, imaginative and often amusing understanding.

Regardless of what the MQM’s logic to having the ‘patang’ or the kite as its symbol may be, it could be easily related to the wind that does not change direction in the MQM’s home city of Karachi. It blows in one constant direction: from the seas, stiff wind or gust.

Some other symbols may be more difficult to handle than the fluttering but unwavering kite. That is where innovation or recourse to the original meaning comes in handy. The ‘laltain’ or the lantern as its election sign may feed the banter against the ANP given that it was part of the coalition government unable to restoring ‘light’. The ANP will have to find its own inspiration as the wise old lantern-bearer committed to enlightenment.

It can be said that not all symbols are as powerful at the time when they are picked up by a party. Some ‘appear’ more powerful than others. This is why the PML-N has been tending its ‘sher’ or the tiger so carefully.

From symbol bicycle to symbol tiger was actually perceived as a huge leap for the PML-N for it provided the lions of Punjab with an emblem their size. The change allowed those with fanciful ideas in the Sharif camp to cage the beast for display, bringing out the killer instinct of the PML-N. The tiger — which has alternately been replaced by the lion in the PML-N legend — is the supreme, unbeatable and always reigning king.

Earlier, as the symbol of the conspicuous common man’s struggle for progress the bicycle did absolutely fine until the PML-Q, comprising a bunch of people who had so far ridden pillion to the Sharifs, took its ownership when the Sharifs were away in exile.

The bicycle was itself heir to the ‘hull’ or the plough, another often-applied metaphor for the doughty ‘ordinary man’. The plough was a symbol for the anti-PPP front, the Pakistan National Alliance, in the elections of 1977.

Why the plough? It would appear that Z.A. Bhutto’s opponents back then considered him to be an evil by and large rooted in the city, despite the PPP founder’s best efforts to lose the middle-class urban support he had won in the 1970 elections. Given the PPP’s image of a representative of rural aspirations in the subsequent elections, perhaps it was more worthy of standing by the plough in polls post 1988.

For someone who was later on removed by a violent act, ZAB’s talwar or the sword, which had clear religious undertones, signified a battle which was there to be fought and won. What type of battle and against who was open to choice and the choice, as always, was determined by need. Indeed it was possible for analysts to see Zulfiqar’s sword as heralding jihad, more specifically, the 100-year-long jihad which ZAB had vowed to wage against India.

The shimmering PPP sword was bombarded out of the list of election symbols by Gen Ziaul Haq. The plough and the tarazoo or the scale, which was the past election symbol of the Jamaat-i-Islami, were also removed, going down under the head of collateral damage even though the Jamaat and other parties in the PNA were quick to join Gen Zia out of their hatred for ZAB.

The PPP later found itself the arrow, the teer in Urdu which rhymed with the name of their new leader, Benazir – just as the rhyming Zulfiqar and talwar had buoyed the slogan chanters in the past. Gradually, to the PPP’s critics, the arrow came to define the change in the style of the party’s politics.

Giving up man-to-man combat the PPP leadership in recent years has preferred the remote-control method involving a lot of bows and an occasional long shot with the arrow. But still a symbol is a symbol, and the man-to-man it was as, on Monday, the PPP-Parliamentarians secured the ‘arrow’ for election 2013 after fighting it out with some other PPP factions.

The sword couldn’t regain its place despite efforts to reclaim it by some PPP factions and the plough was all but forgotten. The scale, however, made a return to the Election Commission of Pakistan’s list of symbols. In the wake of the recent pro-judiciary campaign the scale as a symbol of justice was too tempting an emblem and its past owner, the Jamaat-i-Islami faced competition on reclaiming it from a party which had justice in its title: the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf. Failing to have the ‘tarazoo’, the PTI has since shown a keen interest in adopting the Jamaat-i-Islami itself.

This could well have turned out to be an issue symbol-wise this time round after the PML-N managed to get the hapless cat removed from the list accusing it of impersonating the tiger.

Imran Khan has got the ‘balla’ or the cricket bat to fight the elections with. This is an apt enough symbol but one which could expose the skipper to greater risk of constant advice from those who must whisper some cricketing advice into his ears just when he is about to make a solemn declaration. Invariably, this advice finds IK resorting to the cricketing terminology – almost always sheepishly.

Among others, ‘missile’ has found its rightful owner in Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan while the ‘crescent’ and the ‘sun’, two eye-catchers which had the parties queuing up this time, have yet to truly shine through the maze of symbols. Of the two, the ‘chand’ or the crescent has its own story to tell. It was considered to be some kind of an astrological sign to the stealing of the 2002 election by Gen Musharraf. ‘According to the reliable sources’ the crescent-bearers enjoyed the blessings of the establishment and were sure winners.

The moon-gazing then didn’t quite live up to its conspiratorial promise and the general now prefers ‘the eagle’ over ‘the gun’ he seemed to be aiming for as a statement of his electoral intent. From the aircraft which landed him in power on October 12, 1999, to the daring eagle which has finally landed him home, the general seems to have a thing for flying objects.