Political manifestoes that list ‘economy and ecology’ in the same breath give an indication of how little the ‘environment,’ that umbrella term for everything good-and-green, means to our parties

On what is called World Earth Day [April 22], I wondered aloud on Facebook ( where else would anyone pay me any attention), why plant life, when represented as a symbol, was minimalised to being just two lonely leaves. Among the various comments I received — which emphasised the universals in this “natural” architecture, putting it down to “nature’s balance and harmony” or as being akin to the symmetry of the human eyes or as a set of parents who give birth to the flower in the middle — there were two in particular that caught my attention. I had mentioned the fact that my words had been prompted by the Google Doodle that day — someone who had posted a comment attributed that to Google’s endorsement of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party, whose electoral symbol is two leaves. Another, a Bengali, left a one word comment: “Trinamool,” by which he meant, of course, the Trinamool Congress Party and its grass flower symbol.

Troubling moral narratives

Exhausted by the anthropocentric appropriation of plant life, especially to construct a moral narrative, I suddenly felt compelled to look up the fantasy literature that political parties have passed off as their manifestoes for the Lok Sabha election of 2014. My investment in plant life was more emotional than political, and certainly more about the senses than of the spirit. It was the moral narratives that troubled me the most: over the last half a decade for instance, I have watched Durga Puja pandals in Siliguri, the small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal where I live, being hijacked by municipal corporations, non-governmental organisations and self-righteous citizen groups. Their save-the-earth bureaucracy, that translates into Plant-more-Trees — as if trees should exist only because they are essential to the survival of humans — finds incarnations as posters and children’s drawings stuck inelegantly to temporary pandal walls.

Living in Bengal, it is impossible to escape plant iconography in political life — on walls, paper handouts, newspapers, and, as I discovered recently, the designs of sweets in mithai shops. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s lotus, plucked out from its water-fed life, on a hurriedly whitewashed wall; sweets resembling ghash phool, the Trinamool Congress Party’s grass and flowers, and hopefully tastier than I imagine grass to be, on the shelves of sweetmeat shops; and what now seems far away — both in time and space — the unassuming sickle with which to reap corn — the symbol for the Communist Party of India. For decades now, these symbols, borrowed from plant life, have been made to symbolically represent political parties. But what have any of these political parties done for plant life?

On my Facebook newsfeed, I find the miracles of the lotus listed in a manner that would give Sushruta and Charaka and the minds behind Ayurveda an inferiority complex. The lotus has been traditionally associated with Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth — the BJP’s electoral symbol seems completely synchronised with what has been, with great stock market enthusiasm, called the “Gujarat model of development.” Lotus is “pankaj,” born of the silted, often dirty, pond. In a video shared by a BJP supporter on YouTube, I saw the “Flying Lotus” (I checked again to make sure that I was reading right — “flying,” not the expected “floating”), a lotus installation planted on a remote-operated flying machine. Fruits and flowers have been known to fall, not fly, even before the time of Newton. Perhaps this party, if it was elected, would ensure this power of anti-gravity to all flowers of the subcontinent. Ludicrous as this thought is, one must realise that only the fantastic can emerge from fantasy.

The environment and capitalism

The lotus fantasies did not end there. Meghna Patel, a model in search of a headline grabbing cause, decided to express her support for the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, by posing in a lotus flower outfit, while lying on a bed of lotus petals. Whatever its intended symbolism, I only noticed the crushed flowers. The lotus saga does not end there. Hema Malini, the Hindi film actress, now a BJP candidate in Mathura, finds herself in competition with a namesake, as an Independent candidate. In this Hema Malini versus Hema Malini battle, the contest between the two electoral symbols is quite telling. The actress often makes it a point to hold a lotus while campaigning in Mathura, the Kolkata-based daily, The Telegraph, reports. The reason behind this is that the other Hema Malini’s electoral symbol is a cauliflower. “Nowadays, I hold a lotus aloft in my hand while campaigning and tell the people to vote for Lakshmi (the goddess sits on a lotus),” said the actress to The Telegraph. The other Hema Malini’s sharp retort was: “Hema Malini thinks the voters are stupid. Everyone knows the difference between a cauliflower and a lotus.”

I am not sure whether everyone knows the difference: the what’s-in-a-name street philosophy that comes when tagged with the name of a flower after all; a rose by any other name. Not that voters would not know the difference between a lotus and a cauliflower, but whether that difference applies to government policies created by the politicians who use these symbols to get themselves elected.

Not a single manifesto of any political party in the country makes a case for plant rights. That phrase, if posed as a demand — especially when it comes in the wake of all the Bills passed hurriedly to proclaim for ourselves the “Welfare” state that the Constitution wants the Indian nation to be — would be a mad joke. The manifestoes of political parties do not mention the welfare of trees for the simple reason that plants do not walk to an election booth to vote. One political party lists “Economy and Ecology” in the same breath, which is clearly an indicator of what the “environment,” that umbrella term for everything good-and-green stands for in the capitalist imagination, an unabashed utilitarianism.

I look at the symbols of political parties and think of the humour and gossip that come to me from friends all over the country. A friend from Bangalore, for instance, reports that the BJP has asked its supporters to vote for “Aam”; not the “Aam” Aadmi Party but the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), whose symbol is the mango. Another one, from Chennai, is about the AIADMK’s need to change its symbol from two leaves to two trees for greater strength. This one from Nagpur — the phool jhadu (the broom) is also a flower, don’t forget.

It is interesting to look at the history of the origin of such symbols from plant life. Here is how TMC chief Mamata Banerjee chose the Trinamool’s symbol: “On the way (from Delhi to Calcutta), I began to sketch. Right from the beginning, I had kept the grassroots image in mind, in keeping with the word Trinamool, which in Bangla means grassroots. That is how I thought of the ghas phul (grass and flowers) — the two flowers blossoming from a common stem symbolises Bengal’s rich heritage, best represented by the twin greats Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam” (My Unforgettable Memories). In other words, the grass and the flowers always have to stand for something else; they have no identity or even political worth otherwise.

Voice of the inanimate

In the Bengali novella, Patapahari-r Bonodebota (The Forest God of Patapahari) by Neel Lohit (the Bengali writer Sunil Ganguly’s pen name), a forest ranger, in talking about the rights of plants, though not using that political word, says something remarkable: “Imagine a day when all plants and trees go on a strike, a bandh just for a day. All of us will die for want of oxygen.” Reading this, I was instantly reminded of Bolivia’s recent legislation (in December 2010) to grant all nature equal rights as humans. Justice William O. Douglas, writing against a 1972 decision by the United States Supreme Court, wrote, “Inanimate objects are sometimes parties in litigation ... So it should be as respects valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life ... The voice of the inanimate object, therefore, should not be stilled.”

In Bangla, a kawla-gachh, a banana tree, is often used as a metaphor to stand in for “anyone.” The usage often goes something like this: “Even if a banana tree were to stand as a Trinamool candidate, it would win.” Five years from now, I hope a banana tree would actually be a candidate in a parliamentary election, and that I would be able to vote for him or her. The tree would at least be less corrupt and less communal and less noisy than the human-infested political world we get our passports stamped in.

(Sumana Roy is a writer based in Siliguri.)

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