As Madhya Pradesh gears up for the upcoming Assembly election, the capital city finds itself adorned with a vibrant tapestry of colourful banners, posters, and campaign-related hoardings. As political fervour grips the region, there is an enthusiasm for party-related merchandise among party workers, volunteers, and ardent supporters.

This phenomenon has given rise to a market for election-themed merchandise. It seems everyone is eager to display their unwavering loyalty to a party and its leaders through these tangible symbols of support. These party symbols bearing paraphilia have become a reflection of the fervour and engagement of the electorate as they participate in the democratic process.

“I have always taken pride in showcasing my support for the BJP,” remarked Bittu, a 32-year-old proprietor of a bustling tea shop near the BJP's office in Bhopal. Sporting a T-shirt emblazoned with the image of Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, he explained his unique approach to political campaigning.

“Right now, I'm wearing this T-shirt because I want to champion the party in my own distinctive way. My tea shop serves as a hub for thousands of people. As they pause to savour a cup of tea, their eyes inevitably fall on my attire, adorned with the image of Chauhan.”

Bittu believes that his choice of clothing serves as a silent but powerful form of communication. It allows him to convey his allegiance to the BJP without uttering a word. In this manner, he plays a small but integral role in spreading the party's message and ideals to the community that frequents his shop.

However, another tea shop owner located adjacent to Bittu's establishment couldn't resist making a playful joke about his choice of attire. “Bittu wears that T-shirt because he's looking to reel in customers,” quipped Ranjeet, breaking into a hearty laugh.

“Most of the folks who frequent this place already have a strong affiliation with the BJP. So, he's cleverly using his T-shirts and other merchandise as a magnetic pull to attract even more customers," Ranjeet added with a grin.

This light-hearted banter between Bittu and Ranjeet exemplifies the lively atmosphere surrounding the upcoming assembly election, where political affiliations and expressions of support become part of everyday interactions among the local business owners.

When asked why he wasn't wearing a T-shirt featuring Narendra Modi's image instead of Chauhan's, Bittu's response was swift, “I'll save that for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.”

Speaking anonymously, a senior BJP leader remarked, “the budget for election campaigns has reached an all-time high, and with each passing election, it continues to escalate.”

“What's being spent now far surpasses the expenditures of the previous election cycle. It's highly likely that we'll witness even greater spending during the upcoming Lok Sabha elections in 2024.

“A substantial portion of these funds is allocated to the procurement of campaign merchandise, which is then distributed to party workers, volunteers, as well as attendees of rallies and functions.”

This trend of investing heavily in campaign merchandise gained considerable traction in the lead-up to the 2014 election campaign, which ultimately saw Narendra Modi assuming the role of Prime Minister. "It was during that pivotal campaign that these products were produced and distributed on a massive scale as a crucial element of the party's outreach efforts," he added.

"Personally, I must admit that I'm not particularly fond of this practice, and to be honest, it wasn't a traditional aspect of the Bharatiya Janata Party's culture," the leader concluded.

Despite his reservations, he acknowledged the undeniable impact of this approach on modern political campaigning and the party's evolving strategies in reaching out to its supporters.

This phenomenon, along with the rising party budgets allocated for party-related merchandise, has indeed fuelled the trend. In various parts of the city, a cluster of shops has sprouted, each specialising in election-related campaign materials and merchandise. These stores proudly market what they term 'Chunav Samagri,' or Election Goods.

These businesses cater to the escalating demand for items that allow individuals to express their political affiliations and engage actively in the electoral process. From campaign posters and banners to customised T-shirts adorned with images of favoured candidates, these shops have become vibrant hubs for political enthusiasts to obtain the tools they need to show their support.

These shops have become ubiquitous, not only in Bhopal but also in various cities across the state. However, it's worth noting that several prominent establishments have taken root in the bustling Malviya Nagar area, strategically positioning themselves at the heart of the capital city.

In this thriving hub, political enthusiasts and party supporters converge to explore a wide array of election-related campaign materials and merchandise. The streets of Malviya Nagar buzz with activity as these shops cater to the demands of a politically engaged populace eager to display their allegiance to their chosen parties and candidates.

As the anticipation and competition surrounding the upcoming elections intensify, entrepreneurs like Nilesh are witnessing a significant surge in demand for their merchandise. Political parties, supporters, and candidates are sparing no expense when it comes to campaign materials and memorabilia.

“The business this time has seen a manifold increase, likely because the stakes are higher, and nobody wants to fall behind in investing in election-related goods,” Nilesh Ahgarwal said. He is the proprietor of Jhalak Enterprises, a store specialising in 'Chunav Samagri' or electoral goods.

Naresh's shop sells items such as flags, T-shirts, badges, hats, cotton towels, and various products featuring symbols of political parties like the BJP, Congress, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Samajwadi Party (SP), and others imprinted on them.

“This has been our family business, and let me tell you that this trend is not new. Election merchandise has always been a part of elections, even three decades ago. It's just that new forms have evolved over time, like T-shirts with images of leaders,” Nilesh told The Citizen.

Talking about the evolution of this business, Nilesh asserts that it has always been there, though it has evolved and taken new forms now. The art of creating merchandise for election goes back decades, Nilesh said, “it's a family business that has spanned generations. I wholeheartedly agree that this business has evolved considerably in today's dynamic political landscape, with an expanding array of merchandise being employed for political purposes.

“However, it's essential to acknowledge that traditional elements of this trade, such as flags and related items, have always remained integral.”

When questioned about the prospect of selling controversial posters and stickers, such as the infamous ‘angry Hanuman face’ that has garnered considerable attention in recent years, Nilesh firmly asserts that his shop does not harbour controversy.

“We certainly aspire to expand our product range and diversify, but that doesn't mean we're willing to sell just anything. Our customer base includes individuals from diverse walks of life and affiliations with various political parties.

“Consequently, anything that might be perceived as controversial or offensive to someone else is not something we're inclined to offer," Nilesh emphasised.

“Our priority is to maintain a welcoming and inclusive environment for all our customers. While we may have sold that particular sticker in the past, it's important for us to strike a balance between catering to different preferences and ensuring that our offerings do not alienate or offend anyone,” Nilesh added.

He said his commitment was to run a shop that respects the sensitivities and beliefs of all its patrons, thus steering clear of contentious merchandise.

With a hearty laugh, another shop owner Biju proudly claims that he can predict election outcomes based on the sales of goods at his shop. He confidently declared, "While others may rely on opinion polls and various other methods, we have a unique way of forecasting election results right here in our shop."

Biju then delves into his intriguing prediction method, explaining, “You see, over the years, we've observed a fascinating trend. The items that fly off our shelves seem to correlate with the political climate and public sentiment. It's as if our customers' purchasing choices mirror the collective mood of the electorate.

“For instance, during certain elections, we've noticed a surge in sales of items that are associated with a particular candidate or party. It's like our customers are casting their votes through their purchases.”

Biju's confidence in this unique predictive approach is palpable as he concludes, “so, while others may be glued to their screens and opinion polls, we have our own little election barometer right here at the shop, and it's surprisingly accurate.”

In this lively electoral season, a diverse array of customers gathers at these shops with a shared enthusiasm, to proudly display their support for their chosen parties and candidates. While a significant portion of the clientele comprises dedicated political workers deeply entrenched in various party activities, there's also a substantial contingent of ordinary voters who visit these stores, driven by excitement for the democratic process.

“We've placed an order for T-shirts featuring Kamal Nath's image, and we plan to distribute them to the attendees at the upcoming event. We recognise the influence of visuals and how they resonate with people," Anismesh said. He is a dedicated Congress party worker. With unwavering confidence, he added, “We are poised to return to power, and we are leaving no stone unturned in our efforts to make that a reality.”

On the topic of who is likely to win the election, a prevailing sentiment among the shopkeepers suggests that it's a closely contested race, with a ‘slight advantage leaning’ towards the Congress.

One shopkeeper explains, “It's true that items featuring BJP symbols are selling more than those of any other party. However, it's important to consider that the BJP is the party in power and has more resources at its disposal, which translates to greater spending capacity.

“But when we make a proportional comparison between the wealth of the two parties and what's selling more, it appears that Congress holds an advantage.”

He goes on to highlight the dynamic nature of the situation, saying, “however, it's also worth mentioning that this trend is not static. Just three months ago, the landscape was different from what we see today. The BJP appears to be gaining ground, and the political graph is ever-changing.”

This perspective underscores the fluid and competitive nature of the electoral landscape, where shifts in public sentiment, campaigning strategies, and evolving circumstances can play a significant role in determining the final outcome of the election.

All Photographs Asma Rafat.