Unavailability of a helicopter grounded chief minister Nitish Kumar’s second lap of the Sankalp Yatra on Tuesday.
Choppers, especially in absence of well-maintained airstrips for smooth operations of smaller aircraft, have turned out to be the most convenient mode of transport for campaign in the run-up to the general elections.
While RJD chief Lalu Prasad started using a chopper for the election rallies from last week, Nitish could not start his Yatra. Sources said the JD(U) had ordered two helicopters but the aviation firm concerned could not supply any of these because of heavy demand for the flying machines. The Yatra has been postponed by a few days till the choppers land in Patna.
The national parties have been using choppers for quite long. “Helicopters allow us to cover more places in less time. We can address eight to nine public meetings on a single day through helicopters. The BJP would also hire three or four choppers for the campaigns this season,” said BJP state president Mangal Pandey.
Aviation experts claim that the number of helicopters that can be seen at Patna airport during the peak campaigning period over the next few weeks can be anywhere between 15 and 20. Political parties are making huge spending in hiring the choppers.
Every time a political leader would fly on one of these winged machines, it would draw up an hourly tab of Rs 70,000 to Rs 1.3 lakh per helicopter (see chart). These rates are expected to go up, as the election dates would come close.
“Average hourly rates for choppers range from Rs 75,000 for a single-engine Bell 406 to Rs 1.3 lakh for the twin-engine Eurocopter 135, one of the most sought-after choppers for electioneering works. The costs vary as per the seating capacity and demand for the helicopter. All helicopters used in the election campaigns are mostly twin engines and equipped with best aviation facilities to ensure safety of the political leaders,” said Atul Singh, executive director, Centre for Aviation, Policy, Safety and Research, Delhi.
The astronomical cost factor, however, does not mean any extra edge for the national biggies. Industry experts claim that regional parties are also using helicopters widely for election canvass. “The flying machines also pull crowd at any rally venue, particularly in the rural areas. This gives an added advantage to the political leader,” said an aviation expert in Patna.
Chartered aircraft, on the other hand, are less popular for electioneering in Bihar due to lack of properly maintained airstrips in most districts.
Outlining the “upper hand” of choppers over chartered aircraft, Atul said: “The major strategic advantage of rotorcraft (helicopters) over chartered aircraft is that it can land anywhere but an airstrip with minimum length of 1,800 metres is necessary for take-off or landing of the chartered aircraft. Thus, the use of helicopters in election campaigns is comparatively more efficient, cost-effective and time-saving as well.”
Big political leaders, however, at times use business jets, which are substantially more expensive than single-engine turboprop aircraft, commonly used by chartered flight operators in the region.
Sources claimed that several big corporate houses offer their own jets for election services. However, the rental charges for the same are mostly kept confidential. Atul said the Director-General of Civil Aviation has brought a regulation mandating twin-engine aircraft for VIP flights.
Most choppers used in electioneering are supplied by aviation firms based outside Bihar, mostly from Delhi or Mumbai.
“Considering one of the longest Lok Sabha poll span this time, the aviation firms are seeking consolidated agreement with political parties for stationing a chopper at Patna for a minimum number of days — ranging from 30 to 45 days. My personal view is that it’s a win-win situation for aviation firms as well as the political parties. It would enable leaders from the second and third line as well to utilise the chopper when the big leaders are not on the campaign,” said Atul.