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Paint It Saffron: The Colors of Indian Political Parties

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Paint It Saffron: The Colors of Indian Political Parties

Just like symbols, colors are a part of a party’s image.

Paint It Saffron: The Colors of Indian Political Parties
Credit: Flickr / narendramodiofficial

Just like the party symbols about which I have already written for The Diplomat, the insistence on clearly chosen colors by Indian political parties is an attempt to cement party recognition, especially important when courting illiterate and semi-literate voters. Every party has a flag and so is bound to flaunt its colors in some way, but some colors are used more deliberately and widely, in an endeavor to associate a color (and not just a flag) with a party or a movement. That said, the red flags of communist parties and the green of Muslim movements and groups are too obvious to elaborate too much on them here.

As many parties use combination of colors on their flags, some promote the same combination – and not just one shade – by covering other objects with it. For instance, the Samajwadi Party (Socialist Party) of Uttar Pradesh uses a red and green flag. Its government made many blatant attempts – such as giving out school bags in these colors to children – to make sure that people associate the color combination with the party. The record, however, possibly belongs to the Indian Union Muslim League of Kerala, which uses a flag in Islamic green and which had once ordered school boards and even a road to be painted in this color (complete with the name of the party painted on the street, to make sure the advertisement would be understood properly).

Green, saffron, and white appear quite often on party flags because they are the colors of the Indian national flag. While an Indian political organization cannot use the republic’s Tiranga (a word which is the equivalent of the French Tricolore) as its own flag, many use flags similar to it or borrow some of its colors.

The Blue People

One of the more original colors, however – and hence easily recognizable, both visibly and ideologically – is the blue of the Dalit movements. Dalit, a word used for untouchables, means “broken” but the strong wording is deliberate. It was chosen by members of the Dalit assertion movement as an alternative to the politically correct Harijan (“the people of God”) coined by Gandhi and “untouchable,” a term which conformed to orthodox traditions. Movements for Dalit uplift have used blue-colored flags since the times of Ambedkar (B.R. Ambavadekar).

The Bahujan Samaj Party, one of the main parties that claims to fight for Dalit rights in northern India, uses a blue flag with an elephant on it. The current protest movements of the Dalits also use blue flags. While Dalits have many reasons to feel blue in contemporary India, this is certainly not the reason why they use this color. Profesor Raosaheb Kasbe admits that “there is no settled history on why blue became the color of Dalit resistance” but shares an interpretation nevertheless: “The idea behind it was that blue is the color of sky — a representation of non-discrimination, that under the sky everyone is believed to be equal.”

As will be seen below in another case, every party and movement in India can find an interpretation such as this to associate a color not only with a party, but with an idea. The same once happened with the flag of the Indian National Congress, which went on to become the basis of the flag of the Republic of India. Its colors were originally understood by many to be referring to religious communities but later were reinterpreted to become symbols of different values.

Pink, the Color of Passion 

Another of the more original color choices is the pink of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi. The state of Telangana was carved out from the state of Andhra Pradesh in 2014 after a long campaign, of which the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) was a major part. A pink flag with an outline of the demanded state’s borders in black is the party’s flag but it does not stop there. The pink color reigns supreme over TRS’ public appearances: on posters, makeshift gates, shawls, and many more. While I cannot verify if this is the original reason for the selection of the color, the party leader’s daughter offered a clever explanation of this choice back in 2014:

The reason my father chose pink was because it was the perfect reflection of the Telangana movement as a passionate effort towards achieving the goal. It is a combination of white and red. While white stands for dignity, decency, transparency, and sincerity, red depicts the passion and the sharpness of the movement. Even lighthouses are white and red. It’s the lighthouse that guides the boats to the shore and TRS wanted to be that guiding torch to the people of the region.

Apart from this, I could add, pink is a good PR choice because most of the other parties do not use it.

There is nothing strange in this color, however, at least not in India. Pink is not so uniformly perceived as a “girl” color in India as it is the West. While this is not particularly common, Indian men occasionally add pink accents to their attire. I have seen, for instance, pink-colored bags worn by men or pink-painted fingernails. Let us try to imagine how much more a party with pink banners would have been ridiculed in Europe, Australia, or the United States. This once again reminds us that our views on colors are completely arbitrary and that the Western obsession with pink as feminine is, fortunately, less observed in India. Whatever else can be said about tolerance in Europe and India, when it comes to the colors of clothes, India is usually more tolerant. 

Don’t Paint It Black

Usually, however, black is not chosen in Indian politics to represent a group. It is a color not liked both in India and in the West, as in South Asia it is perceived as inauspicious (though not associated with last rites, during which the traditional choice is white). In politics, as in life, in West and in the East, black is often the anti-color. The political tradition of greeting somebody with black flags to protest against him has existed in India ever since the colonial period. The flag of the Islamic State, which has been very occasionally and recently spotted in Kashmir, is a foreign influence which must have been a choice of marginal extremists.

Historically, however, black shirts and a black flag with a red circle were symbols of Dravidar Kazhagam (DK), a movement started by E.V. Ramasamy (usually called Periyar) who fought against religion, Brahman domination, and for the self-assertion of Tamils. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, DK’s later and much-altered avatar, uses a black and red flag.

The Saffron Government

Finally, saffron is the most obvious instance of a “politicized” color for today’s Indians. Saffron is a color associated with the Hindu religion, particularly with the cult of Shiva. The saffron flag is to be seen fluttering on many temples of Shiva across India. It is also believed that the flag of Shivaji, the Hindu king of the Maratha community, was saffron. It was chosen by Shiv Sena, a radical party active in the state of Maharashtra, which claims to speak for Hindu Marathas (saffron also dominates the flag of its splinter group, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena). More importantly, however, the Hindu nationalists of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh organization chose the saffron flag (bhagwa dhvaj) as their own. Hence, when the Bharatiya Jana Sangh established a party in 1951, its color was from the beginning saffron. Bharatiya Jana Sangh’s current avatar, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), uses a saffron flag with a green stripe and a lotus.

Saffron was a clever choice as is both religious and not. Indian political parties cannot officially refer to religious or caste-related symbols. As seen from this text, however, one can always reinterpret the meaning of a color. Thus, the Hindu nationalists were able to use saffron in a way that seemed “secular” (for instance, by claiming that it symbolized nationalism, while green means democracy) and at the same time be sure that it will be read as a religious message to a large part of its electorate. The same games can be played with green and the Muslim electorate.

Over the years saffron has become a color identified with Hindu nationalists as easily as red is linked to communism or green with Islam, and even more than blue is with the Dalits. The BJP floods cities during its rallies with saffron just like the (much smaller) Telangana Rashtra Samithi flaunts its pink flags and banners. “Saffron” has in fact become a synonym of “Hindu nationalist” in political commentaries. The BJP governments were often referred to as “saffron governments,” and the rising of Hindu nationalists’ influence in a given walk of life was called “saffronization” by those opposing the nationalists.

With the current popularity of Narendra Modi’s government, and with an outlook of BJP’s victory in the next elections in 2019, it is possible that saffron domination in the political palette will continue, even if to retain a stable majority the Hindu nationalists will at some time need to rely on a rainbow coalition.