India’s vast and chaotic election is being fought in the skies with private jets and helicopters.
Ask Amit Shah. The president of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, arguably the most important politician after Prime Minister Narendra Modi, 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 Party, getting senior figures out to as many of the nation’s 900 million voters as possible is key to swaying the electorate. And 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, catalyzed 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.
Indian 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 R.K. 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 U.S. 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 Shah, the BJP president. In a single day, he took off from New Delhi to fly to the southern Indian city of Vijaywada in the morning, hopped over to Dibrugarh in the far east of the country near the Chinese border in the afternoon, and flew back to his hometown in Ahmedabad in the western most state of Gujarat in the evening, a total distance of almost 4,500 miles.