Forget the giant cutouts of leaders that formed the visual yardstick for Tamil Nadu elections in the 1990s. In the age of a computer-enhanced Rajnikanth, the state’s sycophants are all for the digital banner. Measuring anything from 5-by-5 feet to 50-by-50, the digital banners — posters printed on flexible vinyl sheets — have become the preferred expression of political loyalty.
Between this January and March, the birthdays of Karunanidhi’s eldest son MK Azhagiri, former chief minister J Jayalalithaa, and then the DMK heir apparent MK Stalin saw the state splattered with multicoloured digital banners. Before that there was the DMK youth conference in December. An informal census by the state police estimates that more than two lakh banners were erected between November 2007 and February 2008 by party faithfuls across Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry.
An office-bearer at the DMK’s Chennai unit explains: “Considering their cost effectiveness (Rs 5-10 per square foot), even a worker on the lowest rung is able to put up a digital banner in his area. It is more an expression of self-importance than real love for the leader. It is also a ploy to get noticed by the locals and the party functionaries.”
No wonder the entire 6 km from Jayalalithaa’s house to the school grounds, where she recently was to preside over the weddings of 60 couples, was lined with digital banners of Amma — one every 50 feet.
“We had at least 400 banners on just one side of the road,” says former AIADMK minister Thalavai Sundaram with pride. Asked how much he would have spent on the banner blast, Sundaram shrugs and smiles. Do a rough calculation that each 20-by-20 banner costs Rs 2,000 and another Rs 300 goes for the scaffolding, and the total tots up to Rs 9.2 lakh for “just one side of the road”.
Is all the expense worth it? Sundaram and his cronies are confident that Amma would have noticed his unmistakable expression of loyalty, given that she hardly had a choice. “That would definitely increase his chances for a Lok Sabha or a Vidhan Sabha ticket,” whispers one of Sundaram’s lackeys. Party workers admit that not all the expenses are met by senior leaders — some from his ‘areas of influence’ are coaxed into sharing the expenses.
Those laughing their way to the bank are from the digital banner industry. “After cinema, our biggest orders are from the political parties. Since parties keep organising functions, we keep getting fresh orders specific to the events. But there are also small banners with a general sycophantic phrase like ‘Lion of Tamils’ beneath a photo of the leader that are time-proof,” observes K Raja, owner of two digital imaging shops in Chennai.
Raja says the Election Commission’s stricter rules have reduced such spending. But he sees a neater, PhotoShopped future: “It’s better this way — we have assured business throughout the year, rather than once in five years.”