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RPT-From helicopters to ads, India's ruling party snaps up bulk of election props

(Repeats for wider distribution, no change to text)

By Shivangi Acharya and Tanvi Mehta

NEW DELHI, April 18 (Reuters) - Campaigning is gathering pace in India's general elections, the world's largest with nearly a billion eligible voters, as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party races ahead of its opponents in cornering resources, from helicopters to online advertisements.

Voting starts on Friday, with ballots to be counted on June 4 in the weeks-long elections, at which the BJP seeks its most decisive victory yet, riding India's best-funded campaign led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is seen winning a third term.

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In the months to the run-up, the BJP has snared the largest share of reservations for domestic private helicopters to fly its leaders to all corners of the far-flung nation, an industry official said.

"The largest party has more campaigning to do because of the share of their election touring," said Rajesh Bali, managing director of the Business Aircraft Operators Association.

"They are covering more areas."

Demand for helicopters, the preferred vehicle of canvassing politicans, has risen about a third from the last elections in 2019, Bali told Reuters, with the BJP making up more than 60% of election activity, followed by the opposition Congress.

That figure excludes arrangements for Modi, who has criss-crossed India ahead of the polls, as his travel is officially managed by the government.

India has a registered fleet of about 250 civil helicopters, official data shows, 26 owned by the government or its units.

The BJP spent about 782 million rupees ($9.4 million) on helicopters and aircraft during state campaigns, compared to 214.4 million by the Congress, or just over a quarter of its rival, in fiscal 2022/23, official audited reports showed in January.

Polls predict a comfortable win for Modi, but Congress says the election is closer than how it's been projected.

More resources offer a clear advantage by helping to improve visibility in the race, said Ashok Lavasa, a former election commissioner.

"I don't know, in the real world, how much visibility impacts the voter’s mind," he told Reuters. "But I am sure if that was not the case, they would not be doing this kind of expenditure."

In 2024, the BJP is also the top political advertiser on search giant Google, data shows.

Modi's party accounted for nearly a third of the total spend of 1.38 billion rupees ($16.16 million) on 119,387 political advertisements on Google this year, the Google Ads Transparency Center says, or 432 million rupees.

In contrast, Congress spent less than a quarter, at 110 million rupees.

Facebook has shown similar trends, with Modi's party doling out 81 million rupees for Facebook pages against the Congress expenditure of nearly 26 million rupees, as it is unable to match the BJP's poll war chest.

The BJP spent 8.6 billion rupees on election-related ads and publicity while the Congress spent about 767 million rupees in the last fiscal year 2022/23, audited party reports show.

The largest beneficiary of a now-scrapped controversial funding mechanism of electoral bonds, the BJP got over half the donations of 120.1 billion rupees from the time the instruments were launched until the March 2023 end of the fiscal year.

As the party's main funding channel, the bonds accounted for more than half the contributions it received over the past five years, except for fiscal 2020/21.

That year's donations were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the party's audited annual reports show.

Congress, the only party to offer significant competition nationally for the BJP, has accused Modi of trying to cripple it financially ahead of the polls by briefly freezing its accounts in an income-tax case. ($1=83.5010 rupees)

(Reporting by Shivangi Acharya and Tanvi Mehta; Graphics by Riddhima Talwani; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)