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Why netas are in a mad rush for helicopters

October 25, 2013 10:38 IST

Why netas are in a mad rush for helicopters

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Sahil Makkar

20-25 helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft are flying political heavyweights for the assembly elections in MP, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, reports Sahil Makkar

Freak helicopter accidents of the recent past have failed to hit demand for air services in the coming assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.

Such is the demand that in Madhya Pradesh the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the Opposition Congress had booked 16 helicopters, even before the polling dates were announced.

And, it is expected to peak after the last date of withdrawal of nominations, as this is the time when parties actually engage in aggressive campaigns.

Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan are likely to generate the highest demand for helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, primarily because of their size -- Madhya Pradesh has 230 assembly seats, while Rajasthan has 200.

Chhattisgarh, where polls will be in two phases, is also set to see substantial use of aircraft, as a major area there is affected by Naxalism and many regions are still not motorable.

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Photographs: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

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Why netas are in a mad rush for helicopters

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Sahil Makkar

Business Standard couldn't independently verify the exact number but the three states are expected to see 20-25 choppers pressed into service.

Delhi and Mizoram, the other two states where assembly polls are due at the same time, are much smaller in size and, therefore, don't generate much demand for air services.

Experts say the air-charter services business sees a boom during polls.

Over the past decade or so, the demand for private flying has risen 10-30 per cent.

So more non-scheduled operators and middlemen have entered this niche market with a variety of advanced machines.

According to estimates, about 200 non-scheduled operators -- those with a licence to pilot aircraft -- operate in India.

Of these, about 70 are into active air-chartering, while the rest are into offshore flying and have fixed contracts with companies.

Of the 70 active air-chartering operators, 25-30 are believed to be prominent players, each with a fleet of two-three helicopters or fixed aircraft. These operators often take helicopters on wet lease from manufacturers or bigger players

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Image: File photo of Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi arriving in a Pawan Hans helicopter to attend an election campaign rally
Photographs: Amit Dave/Reuters

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Why netas are in a mad rush for helicopters

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Sahil Makkar

"Election time is when operators do really good business," says Sudhir Malik of SpainAir, a New Delhi-based air-charter services provider. Malik, who has flown Congress leaders for the past 15 years, terms himself a "Congress acolyte".

The company has already started flying Madhya Pradesh Congress leaders, including state campaign committee chief Jyotiraditya Scindia, former chief minister Digvijaya Singh, Leader of Opposition in the state assembly Ajay Singh and state party president Kantilal Bhuria. It would also fly leaders of the stature of Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Vice-President Rahul Gandhi.

"Helicopters steal the show in rural India. So far, these machines have been a major crowd puller. One can expect a similar response during the Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh assembly elections," says Malik.

GVL Rao, a BJP member and a close confidant of Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, says helicopters are a necessity.

"These machines become very handy during elections. A star campaigner can attend seven-eight rallies, against two-three a day." Rao has accompanied several chief ministers on helicopter rides.

Perhaps, Malik and Rao are both right. Helicopters do make a significant impact on the ground. 

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Photographs: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

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Why netas are in a mad rush for helicopters

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Sahil Makkar

During the 2012 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati flew to most of her rallies in a helicopter and her pilots ensured they hovered twice over the swarming masses so that she could wave to the cheering crowds below.

No data are available to suggest whether using helicopters in poll campaigns has resulted in more victories.

At the same time, operators have started feeling the pinch from the growing reach of electronic media, new technology and the cap on election expenditure.

"It is definitely a concern and operators, too, are increasingly realising it," says H C Malik, who has flown BJP leaders like former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and party veteran L K Advani.

His argument might hold true for urban and developed states like Gujarat, where Chief Minister Narendra Modi's team had put up large 3D screens across the state. With his superimposed image flashed on giant screens, Modi made his presence felt without being actually present at a spot.

But till the time technology has not penetrated deep into Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, helicopters would continue to rule the roost.

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Image: File photo of Bharatiya Janata Party leader L K Advani stepping down from a helicopter during an election campaign rally
Photographs: Jitendra Prakash/Reuters

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