New Delhi; From the snow-clad Himalayas and deserts of Rajasthan to the remote villages of the Northeast and the sparsely populated islands in the Indian Ocean, the young and old are getting set to trudge to the polling booths. Exercising their democratic right, millions of people will cast their vote by pressing the button against the candidate and symbol of their choice at polling stations across the country.

But ever wondered who designed almost all the election symbols?

The man-behind-the-scenes, who sketched the symbols was draughtsman M S Sethi, who retired from the Election Commission of India (ECI) in 1992. He died in the early 2000s — unheard and unsung.

With the hullabaloo of the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections all around, it’s time to pay tribute to the man who sketched the symbols using the HB (Hard Black) pencils.

K F Wilfred, principal secretary, ECI, informed, “Beginning from the 1950s, one of the biggest problems for many voters in India, where a large population is illiterate, was how to identify the candidates on the ballots. And on the Election Commission fell the laborious task of allocating symbols for each party and the innumerable independent candidates.

“It was decided that the symbols chosen should be such that they are easily understood, remembered and recognised by an average voter. So, a team of officials would sit together and discuss the day-to-day use articles like a table, telephone, cupboard and toothbrush — that could be used as symbols by political parties. Sethi, a part of the team, would then draw those items.”

At any given time, a collection of about 100 sketches was kept ready in the list of ‘free symbols’. A majority of those, existent even now, were sketched by Sethi.

Incidentally, it included Aam Aadmi Party’s symbol ‘broom’ — one of the most talked about, of late. The tagline Iss baar chalegi jhaadu (this time the broom will sweep) echoed all over Delhi during the 2013 assembly elections. But what is not known to many is that the symbol of broom was earlier allotted to the Uttar Pradesh Naitik Party (UPNP) in 2012.

UPNP had contested nine seats in UP assembly elections in 2012, but it lost in all the constituencies. The regional party had hoped to contest the forthcoming general elections again on the symbol of the broom and intimated the Commission. But the verdict went in AAP’s favour for its substantial voter base, which the UPNP lacked.

At times, the Commission faces odd situations when some overenthusiastic political leaders raise weird demands. Last year, during the assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, some Congress supporters called for lotus ponds to be covered up to avoid promoting the BJP’s symbol. This lead the BJP to ask if the Congress would then agree to cover up their hands to avoid displaying their open palm symbol.

Several such incidents related to election symbols keep the Commission on tenterhooks.

Wilfred informed, “During every election, a list of ‘free symbols’ is circulated across the country. Many established symbols, including the elephant and bicycle, were born of the official sessions that took place until the late 80s.”

Out of those symbols, several remain unused. These include: air-conditioner, autorickshaw, cake, hat, balloon, bat, belt, camera, blackboard, helmet, ceiling fan, frying pan, kite, neck tie and nail cutter.

“Animals were a part of the list of symbols during the time of Sethi. But 1990 onwards, the Commission stopped allotting animals as symbols after activists complained that parties were parading the creatures during campaigns and subjecting them to cruelty. However, the lion and the elephant, offered to the All India Forward Bloc and the Bahujan Samaj Party, respectively, remained as exceptions,” the official added.

While the symbols continue to provide identity to generations of politicians, no one cared to keep a track of Sethi after his retirement. Today, all that remains etched is the fact that many prominent parties continue to be identified by the symbols that the artist sketched.