February 2011
#Parties , 456 Views
Only Hearts Club

Byline: Aashim Tyagi
Photographs: Navin Kumar

The political parties winning hearts and votes.

Babu Kumar Sri Sri, 33, founder of the Indian Lovers Party (ILP), is describing the math behind how he figures he’ll amass enough voters for the 2011 Tamil Nadu state elections.

“See, it’s really simple,” he begins. “We are a nation of 128 crore people, out of which roughly over 30 crore people are bound to be lovers.” “If you further divide that number by the states [in India], that gives you one crore lovers in Tamil Nadu alone who will undoubtedly support me because I am the only one who is supporting their cause,” he continues.

For a decisive win, he says he only needs five lakh votes. “I am positive that I will win the assembly seat,” he concludes. Capitalising on Valentine’s Day sentiments, Kumar chose February 14, 2008 for the Indian Lovers Party to come onto the Chennai political scene. He and 50 supporters put up some 5 000 posters around the city which depicted the ILP symbol of an arrow shooting through a heart-enclosed Taj Mahal along with the party slogan: “All the lovers of the world unite.”

It’s a logo, says Kumar, that represents every Indian. Outlining the heart are the colours “rose pink” – the universal colour of love, says Kumar – orange (for Hindus) and green (for Muslims). The white heart stands for Christians and the blue outline of the Taj Mahal represents Dalits. The emblematic Taj Mahal was an obvious choice: “[It’s] the greatest symbol of love in the world.”

While Kumar himself has never visited the marble monument of love, he hopes to include it on his itinerary when he travels to New Delhi next year to register the ILP as a national party. This of course is hinged on the 2011 state election victory he anticipates.

On paper, the ILP’s objectives are perhaps more aligned with social welfare than political ambition. Where caste, religion, socio-economic background and dowries can be decisive factors in whether a marriage goes ahead or not, and the opposition of families and communities can quickly dampen hopes for marital bliss, Kumar is championing the right to marry for love. A former make-up artist in the Tamil film industry, Kumar was prompted to start the ILP following his own nine year struggle to marry Mangaladevi, the woman he loved. As a party, the ILP provides couples with the resources and support to both marry and circumvent family opposition.

“I wanted not only to help the lovers find peace in their lives but go against all those who posed an obstruction,” says Kumar. “Also, I saw a lot of corruption and hate around me. I wanted to do good things for the people and spread love and help lovers; politics seemed like the right choice.” Its crusade of soft power, he hopes, may counter what he calls the “politics of hate waged against lovers” by hard-line parties like Sri Ram Sene and Shiv Sena.

The ILP, however, does not open its circle of love to the gay community. Kumar says he has had to turn away gay couples because the party only sanctions marriages between a man and a woman. “The Supreme Court does not endorse marriage between gays,” he says, citing the touchstone for this stance.

Also frowned upon are extramarital affairs. Before the ILP agrees to assist a couple, background checks are carried out to ensure that partners are loyal, and neither is already married. Apart from arranging the wedding day, a large part of what the ILP does is act as an intermediary in the prickly negotiations between couples and their families.

Jegan, 36, a wood-seller from the town of Tirupattur fell in love with Uma – she used to walk past his shop on her way to the market until one day he plucked up the courage to speak to her.

“We used to speak with eyes, I was quite a shy person and before my mouth could speak a word, quite many months rolled by.” Eventually they decided to marry. But when they announced their plans, the parental juggernaut rolled on in; her parents thought he was too poor and his father had lined up other potential brides. This stalemate dragged on for a year before he went to the ILP for help, having found out about them through friends who were members.

While the ILP often acts as a go-between, in this case, recalls Jegan, they suggested they elope, register the union and whatever the outcome, the ILP said they would be on hand to support the couple.

“Our marriage took place in Murugan Temple near Tirupattur. Everything from the venue, garlands, thali, coconuts and flowers were bought by [the] ILP. All we needed to have was a lifelong devotion towards each other,” he says.

Right after the marriage, the couple faced a hostile encounter with a panchayat, a company of village elders that Uma’s mother had rounded up to help undo what she felt was a calamity.

“In that panchayat meeting, Uma’s mother really got emotional and poured a bucket of water on her head symbolising that her daughter is for all purposes, considered dead. Still, ILP was unrelenting in their support despite all the high drama that was unfolding,” says Jegan.

Even confronted with the kind of melodrama akin to scenes more readily found in Indian cinema, Jegan says, over time the continued support of the ILP and the birth of their son pacified the situation.

Now, Jegan counsels fledgling ILP members who face similar obstacles. As in the case of Jegan, anyone who enlists the support of the ILP, must also first become a member, a way also to ensure that membership grows. The ILP might be spawning envoys of love and happy couples, but for members who sign on, what may lie at the core of the ILP’s appeal could be in the mobilisation of people who are looking to challenge age-old social pressures associated with the institution of marriage.

Kishore Kumar, 27, an Airtel employee, first heard about the ILP after noticing posters around the city. He came on board as a member two years ago after assistance with his marriage.

Bringing lovers together, he believes, is only possible with the support of an organisation. “I decided to join the Indian Lovers Party to help other lovers like us who were fighting against societal pressures.” As a member, he has been privy to the day to day running of the party.

“We receive calls from places all over Tamil Nadu and sometimes even from foreign countries expressing support and gratitude for what we have been doing,” he says. Support has also come from political heavyweights. Kishore Kumar recalls a local daily that ran a cartoon of the ILP leader being patted on the back by M. Karunanidhi , Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister.

Indeed, shortly after its inception, Karunanidhi, also leader of the ruling state party DMK, announced his support of the newly-established ILP by promising ration cards to couples who have had love marriages. To date, Kumar says he has helped at least 16 couples obtain such cards. This nod of approval stands to gain considerable traction if DMK officially endorses Kumar and the ILP as an independent candidate in the 2011 state elections. Despite its growing numbers, the ILP still remains a modest grassroots operation and is heavily reliant on donations.

Kumar says his party has enlisted over 100 000 members, ranging from 18 to 88 and representative of different social classes. In particular, he says, the ILP has caught the attention of Tamil Nadu’s lower middle class youth.

“Many college students and other young people support me because I am the only one standing for lovers’ rights in society,” says Kumar. While Kumar has become something of a grand Cupid, he’s not just winning hearts but also votes.

Take Chinnapaya (“Small Boy”), 29, who left his town near Coimbatore because of strained family ties and moved to Chennai. While working at a department store he met Kasthuri who worked in a shop a few blocks away. Six months later he proposed.

“I proposed [to] her in a classical way. I presented a card with a note that [said] she should return the card if she liked me or should tear it and throw it if she didn’t like [me],” says Chinnapaya.

Kasthuri ripped it up and then gave it back, which he says signified that she wanted to marry but knew her family would not approve; they were apprehensive about an outsider who had left his own family, he says.

Chinnapaya, who joined the ILP soon after moving to Chennai, asked Kumar to intervene. So the ILP leader went to the girl’s family and vouched for the would-be groom until they relented and agreed to the marriage.

Because of this, Chinnapaya says he would readily reciprocate the support.

“Kumar Sri Sri can come to politics. I will do whatever he says. He is the person who helped me marry Kasthuri, my lifelong companion, in a city where there was no one for me,” he says.

It is a potentially powerful space that the ILP occupies, considering the Indian political climate is shifting away from a “vote banks” mentality and towards accommodating the demands of the growing and predominantly young middle class; the demographic that the ILP today attracts.

Almost all major Indian political parties are rolling out their “youth strategies” in order to maintain relevance in the coming years. Congress showcases Rahul Gandhi, as the face of young India. Aditya Thackeray heads the youth wing of Shiv Sena to reach out to young Mumbaikars. Kumar acknowledges that for the ILP to grow into a powerhouse, he will have to expand the policies of his party to beyond lovers’ rights.

When Kumar started his party for lovers, many didn’t take him seriously. And as support grows, not everyone shares enthusiasm for the ILP’s campaign for love; party members say they have been threatened and at times, involved in altercations. Jegan, the wood-seller, maintains that despite the rancour and risks, ILP members remain steadfast in their ideology.

“Whatever happens, we are ready to face it. Sometimes we get roughed up, abuses are hurled and things get very physical, but we don’t exhort to violence for this.”