Ever since the AIADMK returned to power, a silent transformation has been happening in the city's autorickshaw fleet. The vehicles, which just a month ago were adorned with images of DMK leaders and the rising sun, now sport images of Jayalalithaa and MGR.

Many of the over 50,000-odd autorickshaws on the city's roads seem to have shifted political loyalties within a few weeks.

M.Pakkirisamy (55) is one such autorickshaw driver. “You just change with the times. The profession relies on political support,” he says.

While autorickshaw drivers claim that they have just learnt to use the right visuals to escape harassment by the traffic police, the images represent a nexus between politics and public transport that is almost unique to the city.

Even the numbers of the AIADMK-backed Metropolitan Transport Corporation union, Anna Thozhir Sangam, have swelled from 6,000 to 12,000 within a month. P.Rajendran, general secretary of the union, says: “There has been a mad rush for membership forms. That is the mindset of the transport sector employee. They believe getting transfers and leave would be easier.”

J. Seshasayanam, general secretary of the Madras Metro Auto Drivers' Association, says that political patronage is essential in a system where excess loading of passengers in share-autorickshaws and operating Tata Magic maxicabs without a valid permit happen every day. “Political affiliation is not based on any ideology, but is used as a tool to protect oneself. Traffic policemen and RTO officials also show leniency when the ruling party's name is used.”

Picking the issue of autorickshaw stands to explain why the transport sector cannot work without political clout, he says: “If one assumes that 10 autorickshaws can be parked in each stand, then the city requires about 5,000 such facilities. Currently, there are only 130 that have been authorised by the traffic police. So, drivers in every locality just approach the local political functionary, set up a stand, and put up a party flag. That is how it works.”

Many of these stands have evolved into area-wise fiefdoms. This is one of the reasons why efforts to establish a city-wide reasonable fare structure for autorickshaws have repeatedly failed, say experts.

Due to this artificial control on autorickshaw movement, Chennai has ended up being the only major city where autorickshaws clock less than 100 km per day on an average, benefitting neither the driver nor the passengers, says a recent report submitted to the Transport Department.

A number of Indian cities have started moving away from the stand system by developing bays, where autorickshaws come only to pick up passengers.

Reminiscing of a time till about 1988 when autorickshaws used to be a gold mine for graffiti that reflected popular culture, experts on street art say that the current use of political imagery is a form of cartelisation.

Margaret Thomas of the Department of Fine Arts, Stella Maris College, says that in a State where there is a strong cinema influence on politics, images have power and autorickshaws are just exploiting this.

“The ban on hoardings which came into effect in April, 2008, is also significant. It seems to have turned the autorickshaw into a moving political cut-out.”

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