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The tusk ahead

The haath versus haathi war of words in Uttar Pradesh is weighing the mighty elephant down

india Updated: Nov 28, 2011 22:34 IST

There's an elephant in the room and it's not the proverbial one. After the Congress general secretary brought up the elephant imagery in a recent campaign rally in Uttar Pradesh - "An elephant [the BSP's electoral symbol] sitting in Lucknow is eating all your money" - it was UP chief minister Mayawati's turn to come to the animal's defence. "The Congress," she said, "is having nightmares of the elephant trampling all over it." We wonder where the ladies from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) are. With the Congress and the BSP fighting over the elephant, any animal caught in the crossfire would feel endangered.

People with an elephant's memory will recall that in the run-up to the 2007 assembly elections, BSP chief Mayawati had tweaked her party symbol to send out a new message: "Haathi nahin, Ganesh hain, Brahma, Vishnu Mahesh hain. (It's not an elephant, it's really Ganesha, and Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh.)" By conflating the pachyderm with the holy trinity of Hinduism and the elephant-headed god, the self-styled 'messiah of the Dalits' was reaching out to high-caste Hindus in caste-sensitive UP.

In terms of a party symbol, the elephas maximus indicus is a canny visual tag. It is arguably the most emblematic animal of India, its presence is absolute, and it has a high cuteness quotient that leaves other entities like the lotus, the bicycle and the hand lagging behind. But symbols (if not symbolism) aren't the only things that win or lose elections. If Mr Gandhi's reference to the marauding elephant is really about targeting the mahout, Ms Mayawati certainly wants that distinction to be removed. But then politics and the elephant have been intertwined for a long time. At least since the Battle of Kurukshetra when the never-lying Yudhisthira 'lied' by telling Dronacharya that his beloved son Ashwathama was "hatha (dead)". The crushed Drona, who lays down his arms in grief, never hears Yudhisthira adding in a mumble, "Kunjaraha (elephant)" - pointing to the fact that it was an elephant named Ashwathama, and not Drona's son, who had been killed in battle. Even then, it was an elephant that took the rap.