Monday, Oct 03, 2022

Covid Kills Off Business Of Elections

The virus-infected election has deprived traders dealing in publicity material from much-needed business

Covid Kills Off Business Of Elections Photograph by PTI

It is their six yards of hope—saris with digitally printed three-dimensional images of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, all ready and awaiting buyers from election-bound Uttar Pradesh. But apart from expression of positive intent from buyers, there has been no orders from the country’s most politically crucial state which will vote in seven phases between February 10 and March 7. Riding on the success of this potential business transaction is the revival of the Surat textile market, one of the oldest and most well­-­known synthetic fabric hubs in India. Bulk order will mean money for ancillary businesses.

Like all other markets across the country, the Covid-19 lockdowns and subsequent restrictions have led to a huge slump in its revenue, shutting down many shops and loss of livelihoods. With the Election Commission banning physical rallies and campaigns in the election­-bound states of Uttar Pradesh, Utta­rakhand, Punjab, Manipur and Goa, there has been a drastic fall in the demand for election publicity material. Given this, every res­ponse received for the ‘Modi-Yogi printed saris’ is seen as a ray of hope for these traders.  

Sellers are looking at the UP polls—one of the biggest election markets in the country—as a booster shot to revive a beleaguered market. Over 60 per cent of Surat’s inhabitants are connected to the textile market in some way. Though election materials are sourced from this market to most other election-bound states in the country, UP is their biggest buyer. “If we manage to make a good sale, at least with the saris, some of our workers will be able to eat two meals a day for some time,” one of the traders tells Outlook.   

The Surat market—with highly competitive prices—is also the largest manufacturer of election publicity materials, like caps, badges, mufflers, tee-shirts, scarves, bags, purses, shirts etc., all customised to suit the needs of every party. Initially, the market saw a dominance of items connected to the Congress, BJP, Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party.  Newer additions include the Aam Aadmi Party, Trinamool Congress and the NCP. The publicity materials for smaller parties are made to order and not available in regular stock.

Pan to Delhi’s Sadar Bazar, a distance of 1,150 km from Surat and the other spot where political parties flock to buy election paraphernalia. With Delhi’s ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the fray in four out of the five states where ass­embly polls will be held, here too traders had expected good business. “We were hopeful that the party will order publicity materials for Uttarakhand, Pun­jab and other places. (But) there are no ord­ers and the market is deserted. Unless sales pick up, it will be a very bleak year for us,” says Vikram Singh, a trader whose shop had done good business in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. “We aren’t even able to pay back our loans that we regularly take for business,” he adds.

A similar pensive mood has enveloped traders in Mumbai too. Atul Bhor, proprietor of Madhuban Creations, once located in the city’s Lalbaug area, was always excited as elections approached, be it civic, general or assembly polls. The shop has been supplying election materials—t-shirts, flags, scarves, badges etc.,—to Goa and other reg­ions of Maharashtra during the elections. Bulk ord­ers from political parties meant working to a tight schedule. This year, despite elections in Goa, Bhor has received no bulk orders, except a small one from the BJP for pole flags. “Due to Covid, I suffered business losses and shut down the Lalbaug shop. With no campaigning we are left with no work during this peak election period,” Bhor tells Outlook. He has now shifted to Pune and has a shop at Shaniwar Peth.

Photographs: Getty Images

However, there is good news for the electronics and transport sectors as the push for digitally-driven advertising campaigns has picked up speed in the election-bound states. “We have rec­eived a good response from Goa for LED display vans, side panel advertisements on aut­orickshaws and buses. The orders are from all the political parties and we have a tight schedule, as they all want them for the same period,” says Sanjeev Gupta, managing director of the Mumbai-based Global Advertisers, which specialises in outdoor advertising. The minimum price of a van mounted with LED screens is Rs 7,000 for a day.

With a bookings overload from the BJP and AAP, there is a shortage of these digital display vans. “We are getting traders from electronics markets across the country to help out with the demand for LED display screens. Getting transporters into this is also a function we are handling. Basically, everyone is sourcing from here and there. It is a boom time for this market but only for a short per­iod. Since there are many traders involved in the sourcing, the profits will be spread across,” said a source. “The Congress is not spending much on these vans, except in Punjab.”

The Surat-based Goyal Enterprises, over 25 years old, is one of the largest suppliers of election publicity materials in the country. Though it catered mainly to the BJP and Congress, its new clients include TMC, AAP and NCP. Their satin political saris with digital prints, customised to the needs of the parties, have been very popular in the past, with the 2019 Lok Sabha elections being the peak period of demand. Proprietor Prateek Goyal says the Covid restrictions have hit business hard. “There is no campaigning. So, the products are also not selling online. Some ord­ers have come in but we are unable to fulfil them due to Covid.” Shortage of labour is also hampering work at the Surat factories, as most of the workers—unskilled and sourced from Bihar, UP, Maharashtra and Odisha—had gone back to their states during the first Covid lockdown. Only a fraction came back. “Even the orders which come cannot be executed due to this shortage and the Covid situation,” Goyal adds.

The Textile Yuva Brigade, a group of young textile traders of Surat, has even held back mass production of their bestseller in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls—saris with printed photographs of Modi, then a prime ministerial candidate. Though they have received inquiries for the forthcoming polls, there is not much purchase for the saris priced at Rs 600 each. “Political parties including the BJP do not want to spend so much money on these saris as there are no physical rallies,” says a trader.        

In Goa, where polls have always been a colourful and noisy affair, there is hardly any evidence of an election ahead this time around. “Covid has made sure that hectic campaigning is a thing of the past. Without the noise of the campaigning, it doesn’t feel like elections,” says Nupura Hau­tamaki, an events and marketing consultant based in Guirim village in North Goa. “There are lots of banners and flags put up on poles. That’s all. Jeeps go around making announcements, the shopkeepers and handcart sellers have put up party stickers on their shops and carts. It is more of a word-of-mouth campaign,” she adds. As campaigns go digital, political parties have been logging a lot of hours on social media. There are active and intense discussions on soc­ial media regarding various issues, party policies, candidates in the fray etc. However, these live interactions cannot replace the mega political rallies and the deafening noise of physical campaigning, say supporters cutting across party lines.

In another poll-bound state Uttarakhand, BJP foot soldier Umesh Singh recalls the time when he campaigned till wee hours of the morning, and had an unlimited supply of campaign materials to woo the voters. “There was excitement then. We would work like we were possessed. It was like a huge fair, with flags and banners on every pole and building. This time it is difficult to motivate oneself to go out for door-to-door campaigning,” says Singh, a resident of Bhatyuna village in Pithor­agarh district. He confesses that the din of campaigning gave the adrenaline rush to push at deadlines and reach out to as many households as possible. Generally, campaigning in the hilly areas of Uttarakhand is tough. The last few days have also seen rains, snowfall and bone-chilling cold weather, making it difficult to hit the door-to-door trail. “In earlier times we have never been det­erred by bad weather, we have campaigned in worse weather conditions. Physical campaigning had that effect. There would be street vendors selling food and hot tea,” says Singh.

Earlier, the streets would be full of election publicity materials, which would be bought by supporters of parties. With no such paraphernalia on sale in these elections, Singh and his friends have found it difficult to source the materials. Apart from a few flags and neck scarves with the lotus symbol on it, they have refrained from buying anything else. “There are no major leaders visiting the constituencies. Even state leaders are not visiting. The candidates are left to fend for themselves,” Singh adds.  

In states like Goa, where 24 out of the 40 MLAs have defected to other parties, physical campaigning would have helped to place the candidates with their new parties. “Now we don’t even know who the candidates are,” Hautamaki says.

(This appeared in the print edition as "Sari, No Business!")

Haima Deshpande in Mumbai