India's politician of love

Below is an article from our Affirmative Action Media Monitoring Project. These articles represent a wide variety of views. These views do not necessarily represent the views of AAPF but instead are intended to provide you with an overview of the current affirmative action debate. May 14, 2011

By Ammu Kannampilly

CHENNAI, India — Kumar Sri Sri wants to bring a bit of love to India's parliament.

Even in a democracy known for its political diversity, the 35-year-old part-time make-up artist stands out as founder and leader of one of the country's unlikeliest political groups, the All India Lovers Party (ILP).

Motivated by the prejudices he had to overcome to marry his own wife, Kumar created the ILP in 2008 to support couples who wish to marry despite parental disapproval over differences in caste, religion, and social rank.

Those who stray outside the norm can end up estranged from their parents or, in the worst cases, as victims of "honour killings" carried out by outraged relatives to protect what they see as the family's reputation and pride.

The ILP's political platform demands affirmative action in the workplace, as well as free housing and childcare for couples living without family support.

Sitting in the party HQ, a small room papered with political posters in Chennai, the state capital of Tamil Nadu, he boasted how he had helped 25 couples get married in the last three years.

"My goal is that we must get at least 10 people from the party in the national parliament by 2014," said Kumar, who has an unashamed desire for lasting fame.

"Even after I die, my name should be known, for creating the All India Lovers Party," he told AFP.

Kumar first tried to make a splash as a movie star.

After dropping out of school in 1989, he headed to Chennai, home to India's massive Tamil film industry, where he struggled to break into a business where connections count for everything.

"When I left my village I had told everyone I will either come back as a big star, or I won't return," he said.

He worked as a waiter in a diner and a video store clerk before finally landing a job in the film studios, as a junior make-up artist.

It was at this time that he met his future wife, Mangadevi, a make-up assistant whose father was a tailor on the film sets.

Laughing, Mangadevi recalls how Kumar "would come by, talk to my father, and leave. Then one day he told me, 'I love you'."

The couple dated for nearly a decade while they worked and tried to win over Kumar's parents, who wanted their son to marry someone wealthy.

"My parents wanted a girl who would come with a hefty dowry, maybe 200,000 ($4,500) or 500,000 rupees ," he explained.

Unable to secure his parents' support, the couple eventually went ahead and got married without telling Kumar's family.

"It made me realise all the problems lovers face, because their families want them to marry according to caste and money," Kumar said.

"People laughed when I told them I wanted to create a party for lovers, but I know there are millions of lovers in this country who will vote for me."

The ILP has around 20 volunteers who help paste posters and hand out leaflets, and Kumar claims a 100,000-strong following, although his survey techniques are questionable.

"I know because they call and talk to me. I get at least 15-20 calls a day from people who want to support the party," he said.

His salary from his two jobs, as a make-up artist and a neighbourhood milkman, pays for the ILP's running costs.

The party logo is a heart pierced by Cupid's arrow and, just in case the meaning still isn't clear, the heart is filled with an image of the world's most famous monument to love, the Taj Mahal.

A few months after he launched the party, Kumar met Lakshmi, 23, and Srinivasan, 36 -- his first success story.

The Chennai-based couple fell in love while working in the same clothing shop, but Srinivasan's parents objected, citing the vast difference in their social backgrounds.

His father held a coveted government job, working for the railways, while her father was a poor labourer.

Seeing Kumar's posters around town, Lakshmi's father got in contact and asked him for help, after which Kumar arranged a meeting with both sets of parents.

"I told them, don't worry about money, they are both young and they can work hard and make money," he said.

The couple married in August 2008, with grudging consent from Srinivasan's parents.

"If we hadn't met Kumar Sri Sri and we weren't married now, I can't imagine how unhappy I would have been," Lakshmi said.

But not everyone is enamoured of Kumar's politics.

The conservative Hindu Makkal Katchi (HMK) party has campaigned against the ILP, objecting in particular to Kumar's support for Valentine's Day.

"It's against our tradition, it's against our culture, it's trying to spoil the family system of our nation," said HMK organising secretary Thomas Kannan.

"We want to nip it in the bud, these type of people," he said.

It is clearly going to be some time before Kumar's ambition flowers into political success.

When the ballots were counted Friday in Tamil Nadu's state election, Kumar had only managed a couple of hundred votes and lost his deposit in the Chennai constituency he contested.

But his enthusiasm was undimmed.

"No problem! It's my first election, there are many ahead of me.

"One thing I know for sure though is that without love there can be no success. Without love you can't do anything," he said.

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