Anyone familiar with Tamil Nadu, or should we say Tamil culture in particular, would not be wrong in assuming that a visiting foreign dignitary is welcomed the traditional way – poorna kumbham, or an ensemble of nagaswaram and tavil, or a display of folk art. Maybe a presentation of something in local silk or a handicraft or two? All of these and more were on display at the informal summit between the Indian Premier and the Chinese President recently at Mamallapuram. What jarred was the State Government’s claim that it was customary to welcome visiting dignitaries by erecting digital banners.
This at least was the State’s plea when it approached the Courts last fortnight with a request that it be allowed to erect banners along the route to Mamallapuram. The administrative agencies had been strongly chastised by the Court for allowing political parties to erect banners all over the city and State at will, one of which caused the death of a young woman last month, and so the State was being extra cautious.
Faced with such a plea, the High Court of Madras had to give permission. It reminded the State Government that its strictures on banners pertained to political parties and not the executive itself, but safety measures had to be ensured. The question is, was the State at all warranted in filing such a plea? How could it claim that it was customary to erect banners to welcome distinguished visitors when such a practise did not exist in the State even four decades ago? Floral or cloth arches were the utmost we stretched ourselves to and we did a mighty aesthetic job of these. Banners and cut outs were not part of our tradition till very recently. While it would be too harsh to say that the State misled the Courts into granting permission, it is necessary to point out that it is shocking that the administration itself has come out in favour on the necessity of banners. It reeks of insensitivity in the light of the recent mishap. Based on this permission, the Government will now merrily erect banners for all events under its purview. And that means the party in power can also do the same, by cleverly portraying any event as being held with State support.
All parties of the State are equally guilty of usurping public space and erecting digital banners for all kinds of occasions, even as the administrative machinery remains a mute spectator. But those out of power were quick to pose as models of propriety when it came to the present banner question. They appealed to their party cadres to restrain from erecting these and even went on to criticise the State Government for planning to put them up. As an alternative, they suggested that the State prints posters and has them pasted on all walls leading to the summit. Another suggestion was that graffiti could be used.
What has been conveniently overlooked is that posters and graffiti are not traditional methods of welcome either. While they may not claim lives, they do deface the walls of private property. And we may be reasonably sure that Mr. Xi went away with an impression of a very shabby city with an array of posters and wall paintings. The extraordinary silence of the PM, a man who espouses the cause of cleanliness, over this issue is quite surprising as well. Here was a chance to clear up the city of this menace and it has been missed. To give him the benefit of doubt he may have not even known of such a plea. But surely he did notice the banners?
Just one question – are government-erected banners likely to be any safer when compared to political party-erected banners?