Owners of helicopters are rubbing hands in glee as a bonanza is awaiting them over the next eight weeks that comprise the run-up period for the elections to the Lok Sabha.
With the campaign period for elections to the Lok Sabha and assemblies being reduced from 21 days to 14 by the election commission, there is increased pressure on political parties to arrange campaign schedules of their vote-catching leaders. With vast areas across the country to traverse, helicopters are favourite mode of commute for leaders in the days before the election.
The EC's move to reduce the campaign period to 14 days, with the objective of cutting down vulgar expenditure by parties to influence voters, seems to have in fact forced the parties to go in for the helicopters, as the areas to be traversed are farflung, and the parties would want their leaders to address as many election meetings as possible.
Soon after the EC announced the election schedule on Wednesday, the three major political parties in Karnataka began scrounging around for private aircraft, mainly helicopters. With the state slated to for a single-day polling on April 17, the three parties have to pack the entire itinerary of their leaders into two weeks - from April 2 to 15, and in state already the parties started booking private helicopters, choppers and chartered aircraft charters for their massive election campaigning.
Taking advantage of the increased demand for private aircraft, charter firms have raised the hourly rent of Rs 80,000, by at least 30 percent over the next few weeks, says Col Jayanth Poovaiah, director, Deccan Charters Limited, the main supplier of private aircraft for hire in Karnataka and its neighbouring states.
The Congress, which used four helicopters for its leaders during the assembly election in May 2013, is looking at hiring two choppers for the poll, but the number could go up depending on the itineraries of the national and state leaders.
"With state scheduled for single-phase poll, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi are likely to have at least two rounds of campaigning in the state. The main vote catchers in the state, such as the chief minister and other party leaders too have to campaign in the state," said a senior Congress leader.
As for BJP, the party is yet decide the number it wants. "We are hiring helicopters for the election campaigning. The numbers are yet to be decided by the party bosses," said a BJP leader.
The JD(S), the third player in the state after the Congress and the BJP, too has decided to hire private helicopters on a hourly base. "Usually, for election campaign for the Lok Sabha or the assembly, we hire helicopters on hourly basis, as we can't afford to hire them full time, like the Congress or the BJP," a JD(S) leaders told dna.
"Due to the single-phase election, booking for helicopters and choppers is heavy. Already, many parties have started hiring our aircraft," said Poovaiah. The hiring is not done by politicians directly, but through agents.
"We have four helicopters, both four-seater and 6-seater, all single-engined, and the hourly rent is Rs 60,000 to 80,000. The hourly cost of a twin-engined helicopter is around Rs1.50 lakh to 2 lakh," Poovaiah said.
Poovaiah said the helicopters are rented out for use for only three hours a day. Due to the high demand this time each chopper and charted aircraft cost will increase 30 percent and the price fixation negotiation are going now with the agents'," he said.
Besides hiring from charter firms, political parties may also source helicopters from private owners like the mining barons of Bellary. The city, which once had largest fleets of privately owned helicopters, may yet contribute a large number of them to candidates in the Lok Sabha elections. Mining barons like Gali Janardhana Reddy, Anil Lad and Anand Singh have, in the past, placed their choppers at their parties' service.
However, after the mining scam was exposed, ED authorities seized and sold a helicopter belonging to Reddy. With the mining bubble bursting, and the price of iron ore dipping, some other mining barons also sold their aircraft. At present, only a few, such as Anil Lad, and Anand Singh who is in jail, own helicopters.
Other helicopter owners include Horticulture minister Shamanur Shivashankarappa, who owns three choppers which have been given to a Delhi company that hires them out. Other known owner of a helicopter is the Bellary-based BMM Ispat Steel company, which rents out the whirlybird.