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Say happy birthday with banners, TN-style

Chennai, Feb. 23: A drive down most Chennai thoroughfares seems near impossible without a “giant” Jayalalithaa beaming down on commuters.

AIADMK cadres have plastered city roads with huge banners of Amma, as Jayalalithaa is called, ahead of her 66th birthday tomorrow.

A shower of superlatives — from “Tamil PM” to “rare medicine” — marks the posters that will choke roads, block traffic and squeeze pedestrians out of footpaths tomorrow. Some are already in place.

In a state known for political sycophancy, the “flex banners” have emerged the easiest and cheapest way to catch a leader’s eye and demonstrate loyalty.

And banners put up by political parties are more equal than others — they can violate rules at will by encroaching on public space and inconveniencing road users.

Prior permission from the collector is required for the posters, which can be put up only 48 hours before an event and taken off 48 hours after it. But parties are often accused of doing neither.

Tamil Nadu has been a pioneer in giant cut-outs, limited earlier to matinee idols ahead of movie releases.

Actor-turned-chief minister MGR’s fans were the first off the block, using his banners for AIADMK campaigns and conferences. But it was during Jayalalithaa’s first term as chief minister (1991-96) that such giant banners — over 80ft high — became a fixture. After her rout in 1996, she asked not to put up her posters.

Eighteen years on, she is chief minister again, and the banners are back. Few know that better than “Traffic” Ramaswamy.

The 74-year-old civic activist — who earned the moniker years ago when he volunteered to help bring order to roads — has been citing a high court order to urge the authorities to remove the Jaya banners, but with little success.

“The ruling party is the biggest violator. Officials are reluctant to remove the banners in spite of court directives. Most banners are put up by the mayor (the AIADMK’s S. Doraiswamy) himself,” Ramaswamy complained.

This isn’t the first such instance, though. Whenever Jayalalithaa steps out of home for an official programme, her route is lined with banners put up by ministers, MLAs and other party functionaries. During an AIADMK meeting around two months ago, such banners had sprouted along the entire 15km route from the chief minister’s home in central Chennai to the venue — with one cut-out seen almost every 20 metres.

“More than 300 banners were put up, flaunted by Jaya TV (the ruling party-owned channel) as a demonstration of the cadres’ love for their leader but forgetting how much public nuisance they caused,” Ramaswamy added.

The banners seem destined to stay. It could be the rival DMK’s turn to hit the scaffoldings on March 1, when M.K. Stalin, party chief M. Karunanidhi’s son and heir apparent, turns 61.

Culture isn’t untouched by the binge. Such posters are put up for family events like weddings, birthdays and even death anniversaries. “They have become the flaunt factor — the bigger and brighter the banner, the higher the chances your neighbours will notice and talk about it,” said R. Prabhu, an ad consultant.

The main reason for their omnipresence of the flex banners is affordability. “We charge Rs 16 per square foot, including the cost of erecting them on wooden scaffoldings. All you have to do is to sit with us to help design the banners on our computer. We print it from our large-format printers,” said K. Jamaldeen of Mega Digital, one of the many banner printers in central Chennai.

Most of the job is made-to-order. “You tell us the location, our men will erect it there and we will remove it after 48 hours. We take away the scaffolding while you can keep the flex banner as a memento,” Jamaldeen said.

He counted political parties and the film industry as his biggest clients, and suggested it was an all-season trend. “It is not seasonal anymore. We get orders for temple festivals and family events round the year.”

For some, the banners are close to the heart. P. Devadoss, a leader of the DMDK headed by actor Vijayakanth, has just “gifted” a banner to a party colleague about to get married. “It’s our wedding gift to our friend, who will also get political mileage.” The 15x10 feet poster cost Rs 2,400. Devadoss and colleagues pooled in the money.

The authorities claim they are trying to contain the banner fever, despite the lack of tangible results. “We have made it mandatory for the banners to carry the printer’s name and address. We are strictly enforcing the 48-hour rule otherwise we will invite contempt of court,” said a senior officer of the Chennai Municipal Corporation.