Bullet-proofing experts, slogan writers win big in India polls

Businesses offering image makeovers, political slogan writers and experts in bullet-proofing vehicles are in high demand in India, and they have a short window to make some fast money before the country’s marathon voting season draws to a close.

A man blows air into an inflatable logo of ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) inside a shop selling various political parties’ merchandise in Mumbai, April 10, 2019. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas

The world’s biggest election, in which about 900 million citizens cast their votes in seven phases, has created opportunities for a range of businesses. It also means a significant rise in election spending, making it the costliest poll on earth. Expenditure is set to rise 40%, to $7 billion, according to Centre for Media Studies, a New Delhi-based think tank.

As politicians lock horns, Sunchit Sobti, director of Laggar Industries Ltd., and his 70 staff are working overtime to fulfill orders from clients to customize vehicles with armor-plating that will withstand gunfire and grenade attacks while providing a comfortable ride on the campaign trail.

“We are getting a lot of orders,” said Sobti, whose Punjab-based firm installs engine firewalls, fuel protection systems, run-flat tires and vehicle armor. “So far, we have armored 30 to 35 vehicles during this election, and it’s a good number.”

The transformation could cost between 600,000 rupees ($8,650) to 4 million rupees ($57,450). “It takes two to three months to armor and customize a vehicle,” Sobti said.

Saints Art, a strategic consultancy firm, also has its hands full. It conducts demographic analysis and identifies target audiences and issues. The company creates profiles, handles politicians’ social media accounts, writes speeches and grooms candidates on the importance of making eye contact, said Sudhanshu Rai, founder and chief strategist at communication firm Saints Art. He would not identify the firm’s clients.

“Every image is carefully crafted,” said Rai. “It depends on the objective the client has. If he wants to portray himself as an educated politician, all publicity material will be designed that way.”

Media organizations also hire companies to improve election coverage. “We are advising them by analyzing everything on social media platforms – how are Twitter hashtags trending, what is the public sentiment on a topic, how are different parts of the country reacting to a particular news,” said Amarpreet Kalkat, co-founder of Frrole, a company specializing in analyzing social media data.

Helicopters – a status symbol for some politicians – are also in high demand.

But this luxury does not come cheap. The companies charge 150,000 rupees ($2,150) per hour for single-engine helicopters and 250,000 ($3,590) rupees for twin-engine ones, said Mark Martin, founder of Martin Consulting.

Business jets are even more expensive – as much as 460,000 ($66,000) rupees per hour – said Martin, who advises the Business Aircraft Operators Association, the main lobby group for the industry.

“Elections are a brisk business time for agencies,” said Raaj Hiremath, managing director of Ushak Kaal Communications and CEO of Tandav Films Entertainment. “In terms of volumes, the advertisement business is around 25 billion rupees ($359 million) for this year’s election. And some 20 to 25 agencies must be working with political parties.”

But not everyone is smiling. As the campaign shifts away from traditional forms of advertising – such as flags, posters, garlands, caps, badges and T-shirts – onto social media, some businesses have become less lucrative.

Madan Lal, who works at New Delhi-based Bharat Trading, sells campaign material, said there’s usually high hopes of a decent profit during election season. “This time, we have been unable to even recover our costs.”

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