India's vast and chaotic election is being fought in the skies with private jets and helicopters.
Ask Amit Shah. The president of the Bharatiya Janata Party flew the length and breadth of the country on April 6 to give interviews and attend about half a dozen election rallies.
For the BJP and rival Congress, getting senior figures out to as many of the nation's 900 million voters as possible is key to swaying the electorate. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi's cash-rich BJP booked most of the nation's available private air fleet as early as three months back, limiting Congress's mobility, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter.
India doesn't have enough choppers and planes to cater to the surging demand, catalysed by polls every five years. The BJP has booked as many as 20 private jets and 30 helicopters, while the Congress could manage to book just about a fifth of that, the people said, asking not to be identified as the transactions are confidential.
The general elections are famous for using almost any means to disrupt opponents' campaigns. But this kind of rivalry "has never extended to the sky before," said Mark Martin, founder of Martin Consulting, who advises the Business Aircraft Operators Association, the main lobby group for the industry. "It's a whole different guerrilla warfare. It's one party booking the fleet to deny the other party any flying mobility."
Aircraft are typically booked for 45 days, with rent for a jet costing as much as $5,700 an hour, and up to $7,200 an hour for the more agile choppers.
"The operators look at it as a business on a first-come, first-served basis, they don't get aligned with any party," said RK Bali, managing director of the Business Aircraft Operators Association, whose members include firms of billionaires Savitri Devi Jindal and Cyrus Poonawalla. "This is the time when charter companies cover their losses."
Charter brokers, who work on behalf of political parties, play a crucial role, according to Bali. The brokers book aircraft hours from operators, and then sell them in the market to political parties, adding an extra layer of secrecy, he said.
Gulab Singh Panwar, a BJP worker for 22 years who has arranged five aircraft for the ruling party's campaign, denies that his party has been given an unfair advantage. "BJP requirement is a bit on a higher side because the party is in power," Panwar said. "The system of chartering planes is absolutely balanced."
Congress spokesman Anand Sharma said in January his party is struggling to book private helicopters and charter planes. Sharma and BJP spokesman Anil Baluni didn't respond to requests for comment for this story.
The size and complexity of India's election gives politicians with a helicopter or small jet a big advantage. The country isn't just large geographically - north to south it's about the distance from New York to Guatemala and almost the same again from east to west - but the shortage of good road or rail links and the huge numbers of people who live in villages and remote areas make nationwide campaigning a logistical nightmare.
Polls opened in some states on April 11, but while the start of the election gives a chance for candidates in the US or Europe to rest and watch the results come in, in India it means even more frantic campaigning because voting takes place over six weeks in seven phases.
Few politicians are covering more ground than Amit Shah. In a single day, he took off from New Delhi to fly to Vijaywada in the morning, hopped over to Dibrugarh in Assam in the afternoon, and flew back to his hometown in Ahmedabad in the evening, a total distance of almost 4,500 miles.
It's not the first time political transport has been an issue in India. The Congress party had previously attacked PM Modi for not disclosing who funded his 2014 campaign travel and also for using planes owned by businessman and billionaire Gautam Adani. Adani later said that his conglomerate hires out the planes and no one uses them for free.
One significant change this year for aircraft leasing has been almost-zero use of cash payments, the people familiar said. That's partly thanks to a crackdown by PM Modi on unaccounted payments in the economy, which included abolishing high-denomination banknotes in November 2016.
While the move is designed to ensure a more transparent process, the practice has led to under-invoicing, one of the people said, so that the full cost isn't declared. Some private jet operators have yet to be paid for their services in the 2014 elections, but haven't written off the dues for fear of being investigated for graft, the person said.
For those politicians who do manage to secure a ride, the advantage goes beyond ease of travel. The very sight of private jets and helicopters have a significant impact on rural voters, said Arati R Jerath, a New Delhi-based independent political commentator.
In Uttar Pradesh's Saharanpur, an otherwise disciplined crowd excitedly took off at an election rally earlier this month to catch a glimpse of the aircraft carrying opposing leaders, she said.
"When the villagers see these big burly birds landing, the whole crowd erupts in cheers," Jerath said. "That's the kind of impact these planes and helicopters have in some places."
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