In the cramped bylanes of Old Delhi’s Sadar Bazaar, the election fervour is writ large. Not in terms of any strong political inclinations that the market-goers might have, but with respect to shops, which are brimming with election merchandise. A little before the Bara Tooti Chowk, a number of cubicle-sized shops are filled with stacks of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party flags, T-shirts with motifs of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi, scarfs carrying slogans of Aam Aadmi Party, etc.
This merchandise-centric ardour, however, isn’t just limited to the national capital but has spread across India, be it Surat in Gujarat or Dadar and Ghatkopar in Mumbai. It is also not just limited to flags, caps bearing political party symbols, lapel pins, etc. Catchy phrases and slogans used by political leaders such as ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’ have made their way to T-shirts and hoodies. Since coalitions have long been associated with Indian elections, terms such as mahagathbandhan (signifying the coming together of various opposition parties this election) are also being used on apparel. And if that wasn’t enough, saris, jackets, masks, bindi packets and even handbags bearing pictures of political leaders are being sold now.
Ever since sari-makers in Surat, in fact, unveiled what began to be called the ‘Modi sari’ in 2014, the experiment has taken on the form of a trend, with retailers in Mumbai and Ranchi reportedly selling the garment in huge numbers. Even e-commerce platforms such as Snapdeal and Amazon have multi-coloured saris bearing pictures of Modi for sale priced between Rs 1,000 and Rs 3,500. And not just Modi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi, too, have their faces on colourful saris. “We have been running this business of trading in election paraphernalia for over 25 years now. There’s so much variety in the market these days and demand from political parties remains strong all year round due to campaigns, rallies and elections. Hence, we end up selling everything that we manufacture,” says Delhi-based Harpreet Singh, owner of Vikram Enterprises, one of the many shops selling election merchandise in Sadar Bazaar.
Following the announcement of the 2019 Lok Sabha poll dates, the vigour to sell election-centric merchandise has grown multifold. The elections are scheduled to be held in seven phases across the country, from April 11 to May 19, to constitute the 17th Lok Sabha. It’s a known fact that the upcoming polls are extremely important for the ruling BJP that has faced severe criticism on account of rising unemployment, mounting terrorism and increasing communalism in the past five years of its rule. It also stands a chance to lose the absolute majority with which it had won the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the first for a party since the 1984 general election. The BJP is, hence, leaving no stone unturned to campaign and gain voters’ support. It’s no wonder then that a lot of election paraphernalia available in the market currently is BJP-specific. The saffron party is also selling its own branded merchandise on Narendra Modi’s official app NaMo, which was launched four years ago, but became a one-stop shop for BJP merchandise only six months back.
Earlier this month, BJP president Amit Shah also flagged off the ‘NaMo Rath’ in the national capital—essentially a fleet of saffron-coloured mini trucks carrying NaMo merchandise. After a three-day run around the city, however, the Election Commission’s Model Code of Conduct applied brakes on the ruling party’s initiative, restricting the trucks’ mobility. The vehicles can now be found at the party’s headquarters in Delhi and are open for sale there.
Surprisingly, the amount of money that the BJP earned during that three-day run selling merchandise and accessories (T-shirts, hoodies, cups, stationary, etc) was much more than what most Indians earn in a year. “In the first three days of flagging off NaMo-on-Wheels, we made sales worth Rs 4-Rs 5 lakh,” says BJP coordinator and party worker Manoj Goel. “This is not a profit-oriented or sales-specific mission. It’s just an awareness programme via which we’re doing our basic promotions ahead of the elections. The money collected from the initiative will be directed towards funding the Namami Ganga project, aimed at cleaning the river Ganga,” he adds. Comparatively, opposition parties this year are playing it low-key. The Indian National Congress, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, etc, have no dedicated forum for merchandise sales.
Two dominant trends that can be identified are that one, demand for BJP-specific merchandise is the highest so far, and two, the maximum demand comes from political party workers themselves. “Almost 50% demand is for BJP-specific paraphernalia, 40% is for Congress and 10% is for the rest of the parties,” says Singh of Vikram Enterprises.
Echoing his statement, Delhi-based Saurabh Gupta, co-owner of Anil Bhai Rakhi Wala, a shop dealing in poll paraphernalia in Sadar Bazaar, says that in terms of number of enquiries, the highest they have received so far are for BJP-specific merchandise. “These enquiries are for flags, T-shirts, caps, scarves and the likes. Some new items such as balloons, stickers, NaMo merchandise, bands are also gaining popularity,” he says, adding that 75% of the demand comes from political parties and their workers, while 25% is from regular customers buying paraphernalia to show support to a specific party or just for “shauk (liking)”.
Given the nationwide demand for election material, the manufacturing and designing of paraphernalia happens across the country. “We get some flags made in Uttar Pradesh, some are made in Gujarat. T-shirts we print here only by getting raw material from here and there… For instance, cotton is cheaper in Tamil Nadu… Erode is one place where we get cotton items from. Silk items we get done from Surat and most of the relatively cheaper material is manufactured in Mathura,” says Singh.
The third trend being observed by some traders and manufacturers is a lack of extensive demand this election season primarily because of the digital-led approach. Delhi-based Kuldeep Bhalla, who operates two stores by the name of Phoenix Services in Panchkula (Haryana) and Paharganj in Delhi, says that even this close to the elections, the demand is still just gaining momentum. “During the Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh Assembly polls, the demand was far more strong. For now, we are only receiving enquiries, which aren’t necessarily translating into fixed orders,” says Bhalla. “The biggest order we’ve dispatched so far was for the Congress for use in Odisha. Otherwise, we have only had enquiries from the BJP, Shiv Sena, etc,” he says, adding that election campaigning is now driven more by social media and digital marketing. “The NaMo app is selling its own merchandise. Then there are e-commerce platforms that are more convenient for the youth. Even we have our presence on IndiaMART.com and that’s where most of the enquiries come from. The markets aren’t as crowded any more,” he rues.
Bhalla is right. E-commerce platforms are also tapping the demand for election merchandise. A rudimentary search on online retail giants such as Amazon and Flipkart revealed that ‘NaMo Again’ T-shirts and hoodies are selling like hot cakes. The slogan, aimed at securing a second term for Modi, can also be found on other apparel, notebooks, stickers, mugs, pens, magnets, etc, which are all available online. Amazon has a far greater variety of products on sale than Flipkart, but both have priced the merchandise in the range of roughly `200-`1,000. “The demand for election merchandise has increased by 35% ever since the announcement of the Lok Sabha poll dates,” said a Flipkart spokesperson in an email. Commenting on the bestselling products, the spokesperson said that NaMo Again T-shirts and Modi coats/jackets are the hottest-selling items.
However, it’s not just BJP-centric paraphernalia that’s available online for sale. ‘I support Rahul Gandhi’ T-shirts can also be bought on Amazon for Rs 400-Rs 500. And hoodies with ‘My next PM Rahul Gandhi’ are on sale for Rs 900. Mahagathbandhan T-shirts with symbols of Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party are available too. Two contrarian designs of T-shirts bearing the slogans, ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’ and ‘Main Bhi Chowkidar’, can also be found.
This availability of a wide range of products is not without reason. “Slogan-bearing T-shirts are the hottest-selling items followed by hoodies,” noted the Flipkart spokesperson. While the demand is spread across the country, much like in the case of offline sales, Flipkart said the eastern and northern parts of the country are contributing to almost 80% of their political merchandise sales for now.
There are plenty of items available on IndiaMART.com as well where local vendors from across the country have put their election-centric items for sale in bulk. On the NaMo app, which has had over 10 million downloads so far, merchandise (priced at `150-`500) worth `10 crore has been sold so far, as per the BJP’s Manoj Goel.
The Trump trail
Prime Minister Narendra Modi selling his party merchandise via an app is nothing new. US President Donald Trump, too, did the same in the 2016 US presidential election campaign. The official Donald J Trump online store made his iconic slogan, ‘Make America Great Again (MAGA)’, a household name by placing it on hats, T-shirts and apparel of all kinds. In 2016, the slogan became a strong signifier of identity—as per Stanford’s Symbolic Systems programme, it even won ‘Symbol Of The Year’ award.
The merchandise is still available on the Trump website and even on common e-commerce platforms like eBay, and includes T-shirts, hoodies, etc, priced between $14 and $99. There are mugs, pet leashes, dog collars, playing cards, flags, beer glasses, swimsuits, sunglass holders, etc, with the MAGA slogan, all available on the website—MAGA hats, supplied by Louisana-based Ace Specialties, for instance, are available in the price range of $25-55. Iconic tweets by Trump such as ‘VETO!’ and ‘WITCH HUNT!’ have also found their way to T-shirts and accessories—very similar to Modi’s ‘Chowkidar’ slogans.
It’s interesting that even two years after the US presidential elections, Trump’s merchandise continues to be well received. News reports published towards the end of 2018 noted that Ace Specialties had sold nearly $1 million worth of MAGA merchandise in that year. In another August 2018 report, the owner of Ace Specialties, Christl Mahfouz, said that since July 2016, the company sold over $20 million worth of Trump merchandise.