Naveen, 26, a small-time technical service provider, braved the scorching heat and waited patiently in a long queue to get a free hat from Dassault Aviation. Standing next to the twin-jet Rafale combat aircraft on display, he passed on the information to a friend: “Come here quick, they are giving out free hats."
A few feet away, a family of five posed with the mean fighter jet behind them. The young son, all of 15, guided his parents to get the perfect shot. His two younger sisters were busy staring at a grim looking armed guard.
The crowd, comprising armed forces personnel and police men, among others, jostled outside stalls and display areas, hoping to take home as many memorabilia as they could get their hands on at the Aero India show in Bengaluru.
“Is it the Rafale jet?" asked Naveen. For him, the aircraft is no different from any other on display. However, the controversy, whipped up by the Congress over the fighter jet, has created some buzz among a section of visitors. But most others, consisting of largely urban visitors at the air show, however, were not concerned about the controversy.
“Newspapers say a deal happened, but I am not sure what exactly," says Tharkesh, 25, a technical ground crew member, using the word ‘deal’ interchangeably with ‘scam’.
The opposition led by the Congress is hoping to cash in on the alleged scam in the Rafale deal to build a narrative against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the run-up to the general elections. Besides corruption charges, they have also alleged that the PM overlooked interests of state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd and its workers, to help big corporations.
“Political parties are saying it is a scam to blame each other, that’s all," said a young engineer with a government-run lab, requesting anonymity. He added the alleged scam will have nothing to do with how he would cast his vote in the Lok Sabha elections.
Persistent droughts, plummeting price of agricultural produce and rising unemployment are far more serious issues for the visitors at the air show, while the Rafale controversy is debated within select political circles and on prime time television.
Even senior politicians from the BJP and the Congress admitted that elections will be fought on local issues.
A video by a news website, recorded at a Congress protest in August last year, showed that most participants did not even know what the aircraft looked like, let alone know the details of the scam.
When the Congress was going out all guns blazing to highlight the Rafale scam during campaigning for the by-poll in Ballari about 320km from Bengaluru last November, a senior party leader, who realised it would not cut ice with the masses, quickly started talking about local issues such as the Anna Bhagya (free rice) scheme and farm loan waivers.
“This (the air show) is where aerospace and other technologies are showcased. Politics is done elsewhere," said the young engineer, before putting two more free caps in his bag.