In a first-past-the-post system, it’s all about one candidate getting more votes than all other ones. Various methods are therefore used – in India and elsewhere – not only to boost a candidate’s vote numbers but also undercut the tally of others. One concerning method used in India is splitting the electorate: a candidate or a small party may be used to tap into votes of the community which serves as the core electorate of a rival candidate. There is even a word for that in Hindi – vote katua, “the vote cutter.” (It needs to be kept in mind that the word “katua” is also a slur used against Muslims, some of whom have vocally objected to the use of the phrase.)
There are three ways in which a rival’s vote share might be undercut by creating confusion between the candidates; but there are ways to avoid such confusion too.
The Indian political system is characterized by a vast disparity – on paper, there are hundreds of parties, and lists of candidates in a given constituency are often bewilderingly long. In practice, however, both on the state and the national level there are always just few parties that really matter, those that really have the money and popularity to win. The rest – the scores of little-known parties and the candidates who get few hundred votes – barely get noticed. But when an election is close, every vote counts. Knowing this, the big players search for candidates who could confuse the rivals’ electorate.
Fielding namesakes is by far the most common of these three methods and the one that is both undoubtedly deliberate and most effective. Such an instance also occurred during the recent U.S. Senate elections but it is much more often reported in India where it is not surprising for candidates to be faced with two, three or four rivals that bear the same or confusingly similar names. The highest number I came across, coming from a famous 2014 story in Hindustan Times, was seven namesakes. Chandu Lal Sahu, a politician from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had to face seven rivals named exactly like him, apart from three bearing a very similar name (Chandu Ram Sahu) and two more with the same surname. He won, but the final result was a close call, and the namesake candidates did bite away small chunks of his vote share.
Even Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the Indian National Congress, had to recently (in 2019) face three candidates with similar names in the Wayanad constituency in the state of Kerala. This was a rare achievement on the part of his rivals given that the surname “Gandhi” is not traditionally used in that region (at least one candidate was reportedly brought in from another state).
These candidates are often nothing more than letters on a list. They do not campaign, avoid the media, do not challenge their famous namesakes to open debates, and the source of their funding remains shady (other than the open secret that they are being financed by one of the rival parties, though it is usually impossible to prove which one). They seem to usually be doing this for material reasons – the big parties search them out because of their names, and we can assume they are being awarded by the entity that is fielding them. A rare case of a media person talking to such a candidate was a 2014 Washington Post story by Rama Lakshmi: Lakhan Sahu, a rice farmer, was being fielded against a BJP politician by the same name. His interest in politics, Rama Lakshmi writes, started on the day the documents to register him as a candidate were submitted and he did not do any campaigning at all.
The namesake candidates are a part of a larger problem of “dummy candidates.” Faced with limits on election campaign expenditures, parties field one formal candidate but also support other, “independent” ones, who serve various purposes (such as being namesakes), and on which an additional budget may be spent, although their eventual purpose is to help the party candidate win.
There are few solutions applied locally to tackle this challenge. In Delhi, according to one of the electoral officers, the lists of candidates with party symbols next to them started to be set up outside the polling booths, so that the voters could identify the correct candidate by the party symbol. The other recent method is to put photographs next to candidate’s name on the Electronic Voting Machines – this was first introduced in the 2015 elections in Bihar.
Namesake parties are a less common occurrence. For the sake of convenience, the parties are usually referred to by their abbreviations. A multitude of parties may thus create confusion, just like the multitude of candidates. Just like a namesake candidate is being often fielded out of the blue, a small, unknown party may be created out of nowhere, its name being shortened to exactly the same acronym as the one used by another party, and its financing most probably being clandestinely provided by one of the mighty rivals.
The Election Commission of India makes sure that two parties may not bear the same name. In case the same acronym appears, it will change the newer party’s acronym to a similar one on its electoral rolls. A recent case involved the Aam Aadmi Party. Having been formed in 2013, it learned that in the election commission’s documents it was to be introduced as AAAP, since the acronym AAP had already been booked by the Awami Aamjan Party (formed in 2011). In this case, however, Aam Aadmi Party was much more famous than its predecessor from the start, and this could not have been a case of one party trying to undercut the votes of the other. At any rate, apart from the electoral rolls, everybody was referring to Aam Aadmi Party as AAP from the its very beginning.
In time, however, the Aam Aadmi Party had to face two new acronym contenders: the Aapki Apni Party (Peoples) (AAPP) and the Aam Aadmi Sangharsh Party (AASP). And could it be a coincidence that the former fielded candidates only in Delhi and its outspoken objective was to “expose the falsehood of… Arvind Kejriwal and his party” – given that Delhi is AAP’s stronghold and Kejriwal is its leader? The Aam Aadmi Party opposed the registering of the Aapki Apni Party (Peoples) but this counteraction was abortive: the Election Commission of India pointed out that parties are registered with their full names, not abbreviations. Yet, the new formation was referred to as AAPP in election commission’s official parlance, although it sometimes referred to itself as AAP.
The third method is that of using similar party symbols. Here it must be stressed that instances are very rare and I often find such accusations exaggerated. In the state of Andhra Pradesh, as one story goes, two candidates fought over the similarity of their respective election symbols – one used a ceiling fan and the other a helicopter.
In the 2016 elections in the state of Kerala, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) candidate, K.K. Shailaja, had to face two other candidates by the name Shylaja. Moreover, while the Communist party unsurprisingly uses the hammer and sickle symbol, one of the namesakes used the “dish antenna” symbol which the Communist candidate considered “suspiciously similar.” Personally, I did not find them resembling each other too much – you can compare them here – but the charge was that they could be confused in their smaller versions on the electronic voting machine, especially that the candidate’s names were same. Despite this obstacles, K.K. Shailaja won and later gained national and international fame for her fight against the COVID-19 pandemic as Kerala’s Health Minister.
Finally, in Delhi, the already-mentioned Aam Aadmi Party accused the Aapki Apni Party (Peoples) of also using a similar election symbol. AAP is known for using the broom symbol while AAPP acquired the “battery torch” (flashlight) symbol. Again, I have personally not found much resemblance – the readers can judge for themselves by comparing the former with the latter. The accusation, however, was that the version of the symbol used by the party (not the one formally approved by the Election Commission) used a longer ray of light, to a point that the light could have been confused with the broom’s head, and the flashlight with its bar. At any rate, the Delhi High Court indeed considered the symbols similar and ruled that AAPP could not use its flashlight in public.
While this time the matter was taken to court, it is normally the Election Commission of India that makes sure that no party or candidate uses the same symbol – in a given territory as well as nationally. I have previously written more about the importance of these symbols and the way they are selected.
To sum up, the bewildering number of Indian parties and candidates may cause one to think that the country’s political arena is highly fragmented. On the national level, this was true especially in the 1990s, but the last years suggest a reverse trend, with one party holding a firm dominance. As mentioned above, in most of the elections these small parties and candidates have no chance of winning. This, does not make them completely irrelevant, however. Their significance, if any, is usually measured not by how much they can win but how much they can make others lose (“others” being the big parties and big candidates). Thus, for any large Indian party the election game may be not only about uniting one’s own voters but often also about dividing the rivals’ electorates.