MANUFACTURERS and dealers of sports utility vehicles (SUVs) in India have shifted gears.
Sales of the sturdy vehicles are on the up following the announcement of elections.
Companies like Toyota Kirloskar, Mahindra and Mahindra, Ford India, Tata Motors, General Motors and Maruti Suzuki have already fine-tuned their production lines in the run-up to the five-phase elections, industry watchers told IANS.
Marketing executives in these companies said the politicians were not only opting for time-tested vehicles like the Maruti Gypsy and Tata Safari, but also some relatively newer offerings such as Mahindra's Xylo and Scorpio, Toyota's Innova and Ford's Endeavour.
The Tata Safari continues to be the preferred choice of Congress party president Sonia Gandhi and opposition leader L.K. Advani.
Telugu film star Chiranjeevi, who has floated the Praja Rajyam party, prefers the costlier Honda CRV.
"Election campaigns are really tough and demanding. We are on the road for some 15 to 16 hours, or even longer, every day," said MrMadhu Gaud Yaskhi, the sitting Lok Sabha member of Congress representing Nizamabad in Andhra Pradesh.
"Sports utility vehicles are sturdy, comfortable and safe - not just on highways but also on the mud roads and bylanes we have to encounter. They are clearly my vehicle of choice," said MrYaskhi, who has bought a Safari and a Scorpio.
According to Mr Abdul Majeed, the principle car analyst at consulting and audit firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), leaders prefer strong vehicles since the bulk of the voters in India are in rural areas.
"SUVs are preferred over other cars because of their all-terrain capabilities. These vehicles have all-wheel drive, which make them the best available options in terms of access and safety," he said.
Sales of such vehicles have gone up in Jharkhand, according to The Times Of India.
And the entire automobile sector stands to benefit.
"We have received a number of orders from political parties and some candidates. As a result, the production of SUVs has been increased to meet the demand," said a senior Mahindra and Mahindra executive.
"In December 2008, we sold 60 to 65 vehicles from the showroom. But in the past two months, we have sold 100 of them and are currently unable to meet this sudden spurt in demand," said Mr Shailendra Chaubey, sales manager at Prateek Automobiles, dealers of Mahindra and Mahindra.
Mr Dilip Chenoy, director general of the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers, expected car companies to log higher sales for SUVs in states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar and Maharashtra - a view shared by Mr Gaurav Saxena, general manager, auto sector, for Mahindra and Mahindra.
"States with a wider geography and higher rural electoral base do present larger opportunities for car-makers," said Mr Chenoy, adding that the companies were also anxious, given the tough election code and closer tab on election spending.
Fear of terror attacks have also contributed to politicians shifting to SUVs.
Several senior politicians are known to have bulletproof Ambassadors, but specialist dealers say candidates in this election are turning to Pajero and Land-Cruiser jeeps which can be bullet-proofed without loss of mobility.
India's home affairs ministry has raised the specifications for bulletproof cars and switched its support to four-wheel drive SUVs.
The new Pajeros will cost the government around Rs70 lakhs each after the armour-plating work is completed.
The new models will have reinforced anti-explosion fuel tanks, tyres which can continue at 56kph after being hit by bullets, and Kevlar-reinforced roofs to withstand heavier artillery attacks. -Tabla!