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Elephant symbol

The elephant in the polling booth


The Republicans have one thing in common with the BSP - their logo is the Indian elephant. The Democrats prefer the rather plebeian donkey.

If there is a big publican campaign, can People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) be far behind ? The animal rights group has always been adept at crashing into other campaigns to raise their concerns and the US Presidential Elections are no exception. An activist in elephant costume has been trailing Barack Obama to protest the use of elephants by circuses where, PETA claims, they are "trained, disciplined and punished with violation of the federal Animal Welfare Act. "

This campaign might be admirable, but in this case PETA might be misfiring a bit since the chances are that most people at these events will assume that the protestor is yet another enraged and extremist Republican activist bent on trumpeting his or her outrage at Obama. Because the elephant has been the symbol of the Republicans since the late 19th century, just as the donkey is for the Democrats. But where the donkey doesn't have official national status with the Democrats, the Republicans, as befits the party of business interests, have trademarked their elephant logo and proactively defend it.

A website called CafePress. com discovered this during the last elections when it received a notice from the Republican National Committee (RNC) asking it to "cease and desist from allowing vendors to utilize the federally registered trademarks of the RNC. " CafePress was all set to battle for fair use of symbols when the RNC, perhaps not wanting distractions, backed off in return for CafePress agreeing to encourage its vendors to seek licences from the RNC for designs that only used the elephant logo, and not any modification of it.

But where did the Republicans pick up this elephant logo which must surely be its only link with the Bahujan Samaj Party other than, perhaps, the determination with which the leaders of both have tried to protect public scrutiny of their finances? The use of animal mascots by US parties goes back to the 19th century when democracy in the US did share the current Indian combination of fiercely contested elections along with many voters who were not literate, or were recent immigrants who spoke little English. Political parties realised that mascots and symbols served as good identification marks, as well as providing a sense of continuity which was important in the US since parties there did not have a fixed leader to serve as its face outside the one chosen for each Presidential campaign.

The Democrat identification with donkeys came first, during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, who was first elected in 1828. Jackson's election saw a decisive break from the era of the Founding Fathers, when politics was still dominated by the elites from well-established families. Jackson was born to a poor family in still uncharted territories and came up on the basis of his reputation as a military hero and identification as a man of the masses. His opponents tried to ridicule him as crude and uneducated, twisting his name from Jackson to 'jackass", but he turned the tables by enthusiastically adopting the label and promising to be as stubborn as a donkey in achieving his goals.

Jackson and his supporters essentially created the Democratic Party and the donkey their unofficial mascot. It was well enough known for an illustrator named Thomas Nast to use when he started a career in the 1860s as one of the first professional cartoonists. Nast was an immigrant from Germany and someone who had problems reading all his life - he would probably be diagnosed as dyslexic today - so had a particular appreciation for the power of images in helping people understand social and political issues. He is probably best known for popularising the images of Santa Claus as a symbol of Christmas and Uncle Sam as a symbol of the USA.

Nast was a fervent supporter of the Republicans, the party formed by Abraham Lincoln that was now the main opponent of the Democrats and one of his early cartoons satirised the Democrats' attack on one of his heroes, the recently deceased Edwin Stanton who had been Lincoln's Secretary of War. Nast drew a cartoon showing a donkey kicking a dead lion, and from then regularly used the symbol. And it was in one such cartoon in 1874 that he brought in an elephant to stand for the Republicans.

The cause was a controversy over the Republican President Ulysses Grant who was in his second term and was, apparently, contemplating an unprecedented third term. The Democrats furiously resisted this, alleging that he was trying to destroy the American republic, just as Julius Caesar had tried to do away with the Roman Republic. The Democratic-inclined New York Herald newspaper was particularly vocal in this charge of 'Caesarism'.

At the same time the Herald were also trying to lure readers with a hoax story of how animals in New York's Central Park zoo have broken loose and were roaming the city. Nast, who was a personal friend of President Grant's, combined both campaigns in a cartoon about the old fable of the donkey that dressed in a lion's skin to frighten the other animals. His cartoon showed the Herald as a donkey dressed in the lion's skin of Caesarism frightening away other animals, including a large elephant that he labelled the 'Republican vote'. (Grant never stood for a third term. He retired and went on a world tour during which he became probably the first American president, out of term, to visit India).
Nast liked the elephant image and started using it repeatedly as a counter to the Democrat donkey. As a committed Republican he probably liked the image of solidity and power that it conveyed. Democrats have, expectedly, been less flattering over the years. Adlai Stevenson, an eloquent politician who twice ran, unsuccessfully, against President Eisenhower explained it by saying, "The elephant has a thick skin, a head full of ivory, and as everyone who has seen a circus parade knows, proceeds best by grasping the tail of its predecessor. "

Nast never specified which kind of elephant he was drawing, but it was almost definitely an Indian one. These were the ones most commonly found in zoos and circuses because of their greater docility and ability to be trained. The elephants in Nast's cartoons also have the more rounded head and smaller ears of the Indian elephant. This has not translated into any particular inclination of Republican Presidents towards India, though in business terms we probably benefit more from them than the protectionist-inclined Democrats.

Several commentators like Sadanand Dhume have also pointed out that the natural interests of the prosperous Indian-American community may lie more naturally with the Republicans than the Democrats. If they are right and this support grows, perhaps the Indian elephant inspired Republican logo might then seem even more appropriate.
vikram. doctor@timesgroup. com

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