Sitting in an extended traffic jam in Delhi, I watched vehicles swerve around an unidentifiable object a few cars ahead of my Uber. As we approached, I realised the obstruction was a cow, standing peacefully in the middle of a highway — completely undisturbed by the swerving, noisy chaos around it.

Utilising Sacred Animals

Cows in India are sacred. Not just religiously, but politically too. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has used the cow both symbolically and in national policy projections to capture Hindu electoral support — something that has antagonised those who do not share his sentiments about these creatures. However, animal worship is not restricted to India. Across the world and in history, animals have been used to whip up political support and incentivise national sentiment. Dating back to ancient Toteism,  human characteristics have long been associated with various ‘spirit-beings’ such as animals, making them powerful symbols in promoting a national character.

Holy Cow …!

The sacred nature of the cow in India derives both from religion and history. A hymn in the Hindu scripture Rigveda criticises the killing of all men, cattle and horses and demands that all slaughterers be punished. The cow is protected by Article 48 of the Constitution of India, which says that the state: ‘shall … take steps for preserving and improving the breeds of cattle and prohibit the slaughter of cow … .’ This edict continues to have consequences for modern-day India.

A senior HR professional blames the issue of cows for holding India back economically and allowing its neighbour, China, to storm ahead. Modi has even introduced national exams on ‘cow science’ and accused competing political parties of supporting a pro-cow slaughter ‘pink revolution.’ In response, his opponents criticise him for not doing enough to condemn cow vigilante groups, maintaining that he is exploiting the issue purely for political ends.

Prime Minister since 2014, Narendra Modi has recently been pegged as the world’s most popular leader with an approval rating of 78 per cent — far ahead of Joe Biden who stands at forty. In a country in which the Hindu population comprises 80 per cent, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Modi has decided to strategically utilise the sacred cow as a symbol of India’s past and future.

Elephants Vs Donkeys 

Elephants were first used to symbolise the American Republican Party by Thomas Nast in the 1874 cartoon: ‘The Third Term Panic.’ Supposedly, the elephant walking off a cliff was based on the old phrase ‘seeing the elephant,’ used by pro-Unionist Republicans to describe themselves having seen physical battle during the Civil War. Today, the Republican elephant can be seen across a multitude of the party’s merchandise. From mugs to T-shirts and even a vector promoting constitutional values, the mighty elephant stands as a symbol of power to remind Republicans of their historical core. The fact that the national party’s chosen animal — unlike the cow in India — is not native to America, remains an interesting oddity.

Historically, Americans have used elephants as political opponents to the Democratic Donkey. Here too, Thomas Nast used cartoon imagery in the 19th Century to criticise the Democratic Southern newspaper industry. Forty years earlier, Democrat Andrew Jackson was referred to as a ‘jackass.’ However, instead of being offended, Jackson embraced the title and turned the insult into a party-wide campaign slogan. In January 2020, former Colorado House of Representatives member Daneya Esgar tweeted: ‘Happy 150th birthday to the Democratic donkey!’ Esgar makes a point of praising the nature of this ‘tough, hardworking creature,’ while saying that she is ‘proud to stand with working-class Coloradans.’

In the case of America, animals have been used to represent polarising political parties, trapped in an ideological battle. The dutiful and enduring donkey is a symbol of the working class. Come 2024, Democrats will need to use that imagery to consolidate their political support if they want to avoid a return of the Elephants.

More Donkeys … and Some Lions

The United States is not the only country to use the Donkey as a national symbol to incentivise voter support. The phrase ‘Lions led by donkeys’ is one popularised during the First World War to criticise the military incompetence of leaders. It was even, allegedly, used throughout the Crimean war by Russian generals.

The ‘Lions of England’ represent more than football. Some date them to the reign of Richard I in the 12th Century. The lion’s crest then became the arms of the Duchy of Normandy, symbolising key ‘British’ qualities: strength, courage and pride. Perhaps the most famous historical reference to the lion is Winston Churchill’s black and white photographic portrait named ‘The Roaring Lion.’ Taken in 1941, Churchill’s fierce posture and stern facial expression reflect the period. Here then, is yet another instance of an animal being used to incite national sentiment — in this case, during wartime.

A Political Animal

It is easy to understand why animals are often the preferred political or national symbols as opposed to, say, flags or anthems. Not only do they share human-like characteristics that can be very effective in galvanizing a race or class-based movement, but they can also be used to represent ideological battles between political parties. Of course, resorting to symbolism, and specifically the use of animal imagery to emphasise certain ideas or incentivise partisan support, perhaps speaks of a general human weakness rather than strength.

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