Animals are not just silent spectators of Indian elections, but active participants in the democratic process. From majestic elephants to obedient dogs, members of the animal kingdom have been the unsung heroes all these years.

Imagine 1951-52, a newly-independent India embarking on its first general election. The country’s vast and rugged terrain and lack of adequate infrastructure posed a formidable challenge for election machinery.

The Narrative Report of the 17th Lok Sabha General Elections by the Election Commission of India (ECI) said elephants, bullock carts, camels were used for transport in difficult tracts for movement of machines and manpower in 1951-52. Thus these animals became the unconventional chariots of democracy, carrying the hopes and aspirations of an independent nation.

Fast forward to 2014, and the role of animals had evolved. Dogs became the guardians of peace. Deployed across sensitive zones, 47 canine comrades sniffed out dangers and protected the sanctity of the vote. Bomb detecting dog squads from Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh were mobilised to Chhattisgarh, and from Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal were mobilised to Jharkhand. These dogs belonged to Labrador, German shepherd or Belgian Malinois breeds.

Election officials travel on elephants on their way to Nartap in the Guwahati constituency on the Assam-Meghalaya border, on April 19, 2004.  (file photo)

Election officials travel on elephants on their way to Nartap in the Guwahati constituency on the Assam-Meghalaya border, on April 19, 2004. (file photo) | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

According to the Narrative Report of the 16th Lok Sabha General Elections, a five-year-old Labrador named ‘Brandy’ detected around 40 kg of IEDs in Sukma, Chhattisgarh, and saved the lives of CRPF men. ‘Brandy’, which died on March 24, 2014, is a poignant reminder of the sacrifices made in the line of duty.

However, not all animals played the role of a friend. Some, like the elephants in Meghalaya or the crocodiles in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, presented unique challenges, turning the election process into an adventure.

During the 2014 elections, the election machinery convened emergency meetings with the Forest Department to keep away the elephants at Salmanpara polling segment in Meghalaya. Five crack teams with six forest personnel each were deployed to cover 19 polling stations vulnerable to elephant presence.

In the 2019 election, officials in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands had to cross mangrove swamps populated by crocodiles and then cross a three-hour expanse of open sea. They would then have to trek through a jungle to the isolated village of Hanspuri so that its 260 voters could participate in the electoral process. Officials braved jungles, mangroves and seas, ensuring every vote was cast even in the most remote corners of the country.

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Political parties too have embraced animals as emblems of their identity. A ‘Report on the First General Elections in India 1951-52’ by ECI shows that the symbols of animals were allotted in 1951-52 itself. This included ‘Horse and Rider’ for Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha, ‘Standing Lion’ for All-India Forward Bloc (Marxist Group), ‘Two Bulls with Yoke on’ for Indian National Congress, ‘Elephant’ for All-India Scheduled Castes’ Federation.

At present, the Bahujan Samaj Party has the Elephant as its symbol among national parties.

According to the ECI notification dated May 15, 2023, Asom Gana Parishad (Assam) has ‘Elephant’; and Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (Goa), Hill State People’s Democratic Party (Meghalaya), and All India Forward Bloc (West Bengal) have ‘Lion’ as their election symbol.

As the narrative of Indian elections unfolds, it is clear that animals are essential characters shaping the plot and adding depth to the rich tapestry of India’s electoral history.