Vote for Love

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Babu Kumar Sri Sri is a politician on an ambitious social mission: to help Indian lovers find marital bliss and get special privileges

A child’s mother sits on a doorstep, scouring her daughter’s freshly oiled hair for lice. A lady squats nimbly to wash cooking pots outside her home, and scolds her grandchild who plays in the suds. Soot-coloured hens scatter noisily as Babu Kumar Sri Sri walks by from his modest housing board room in Kodambakkam to his rented room office—the site of his newfound calling as President and Founder of the All India Lovers Party (ILP).

Kumar launched the party in February 2008 with a fanfare of nadaswarams in Chennai’s Vadapalani Temple, at the wedding of a Christian boy and Hindu girl. But the story behind his original inspiration is more than two decades old.

Kumar was just 16 when he came to Chennai from his village Ravula Penta in Andhra Pradesh. In pursuit of his Kollywood acting dreams, he had followed a tailor from his village who worked in the film industry and promised to help him out. For a month, they stayed in a rented tin-roof shack in Kodambakkam, a film studio zone.

Before any introductions could be made, when the rent came due, the tailor hightailed it. “Ooru-ku escape,” recalls Kumar, with a wry smile, “Gone.” Kumar worked as a waiter, barely scraping together his Rs 200 room rent. But there was a silver lining to this grimy cloud. Her name was Mangaladevi, and she was his neighbour. Their love affair began in 1991, but they only got married in 2001, as Kumar’s parents fiercely opposed the match throughout the intervening years. Despite their son being a ‘10th fail’, his being ‘outstation’ could fetch his rice farming family a dowry of at least Rs 1 lakh, something they had no hope of getting if he married Mangaladevi, the daughter of a tailor working in the film industry. Nevertheless, they did wed, have two children, and live off Kumar’s earnings as a cinema makeup artist.

The happy conclusion of Kumar’s romance—as opposed to tales of honour killings, feuding families and suicides that unfold daily in the papers—inspired him to help facilitate happy endings for other couples wishing to cast aside differences in caste, religion or community, and marry for love. Playing Cupid became a passion, and two years ago, he came up with the idea of a political party of lovers. “I was a little frightened,” says Kumar. “I thought, political party, ayyo! So much vettu-kuthu (stabbing, killing)! It was such a big matter, and I knew I’d face a lot of opposition.” Instead, he faced ridicule. “Everyone made fun of me. Nobody encouraged me, except my wife.”

Now, however, he gets 20 calls a day from supporters and admirers between the ages of 18 and 88 who’ve visited his website after either spying one of the 5,000 posters he’s stuck around town, or read an article about him. All of them congratulate him on his venture, ask to be made members, and promise their vote to him once he registers himself—which he plans to do in March 2011, when he’ll convene a grand meeting of lovers to “show my strength”.

Kumar attributes this turnaround to the two auspicious syllables, Sri Sri, that he tacked onto his name after consulting a numerologist. “Earlier, I was an ordinary man,” he muses. “But once I added those two letters, the world began to talk about me.” Just 12 hours after he presided over his first wedding, and stuck posters announcing his party’s existence, he became, he says, “full-a famous”. “Sun TV, Kalaignar TV, channels from Saudi, Australia, the US, Malaysia… they all interviewed me. And to think everyone made fun of me when I told them I’d be starting this party!”

Arunachalam, 36, one of his earliest acolytes, having been involved with the ILP well before it was formally launched, was drawn in by a poster at a beach in Vadapalani, where he works at a provision store. “I saw the notice, and I thought, ‘A lovers party—I belong here!’” he says. A decade ago, he’d fallen in love with his wife in his hometown Tirupur. His older brother got wind of this, and intimidated his fiancée’s family. Arunachalam fled to Coimbatore to marry her, and today they’re comfortably settled in Chennai, with two daughters. But it wasn’t easy. “We had so many difficulties, and there was nobody to help us,” he says. “That’s why I wanted to give the Lovers Party my support, to help other people who are in the same position I was in ten years ago.” He has assisted Kumar in organising five weddings, and accompanied him on trips to beaches, where they interrupt lovers’ trysts to hand them ILP flyers. Arunachalam even expects tangible benefits from his membership in the future: “Kumar says he’ll get us lovers a separate ration card.”

Kumar Sri Sri’s most devoted membership, however, comes from his own neighbourhood, Kodambakkam. Take the case of Venkat, 26, who sells second-hand cars and goes to Kumar’s office every other day to take phone calls and attend meetings to plan party activities, especially for Valentine’s Day. “I like helping lovers,” he says, though single himself. “Love is great, B Kumar is good, and the Lovers Party provides a useful service by improving the lot of lovers.”

Nevertheless, Kumar Sri Sri is wary of being too open about his party around his neighbourhood, where people associate him with an ironing business—his mother-in-law’s. The party’s presence is restricted to a peeling, faded ILP sticker which adorns the postbox beneath his home, and he has taken a nearby room on rent as his office. It has a desk, a mattress “to keep things decent”, and is wallpapered with posters of Kumar Sri Sri in a range of politician poses: garlanded and beaming genially, waving regally, or with his hands clasped in a namaste, alongside the ILP symbol: a Taj Mahal within an arrow-impaled heart, within a flag.

Kumar Sri Sri’s agenda, though, is oddly moralistic for someone working for a constituency as hormonal and hedonistic as lovers. The only happy ending available to lovers who seek the party’s help is holy matrimony—after Kumar Sri Sri dispenses with dramatic Kollywood-style hindrances like feuding parents, of course. He won’t extend his generosity to lovers who go off-script. All of them must submit their voter IDs and their parents’ numbers, after which Kumar Sri Sri verifies their identity, age, and single status. “This way I make sure they’re not eloping with someone else’s wife!” he explains. “I want to be associated with decent affairs, not bad ones, like extra-marital affairs. I only entertain correct love, true love. Not time-pass lovers!” Applicants who don’t provide the right details are rejected, or sent off to the police commissioner.

This makes the ILP sound like Delhi’s Love Commandos—another bunch of Valentine’s Day fans who run a helpline for persecuted couples, who they aim to ‘rescue’ by having them wed. But the ILP’s policies extend their scope beyond love and marriage. Its pink flyer detailing party guidelines for lovers states that the ILP plans to fight for reservations in employment and education for those who’ve married for love, and then goes on to add: ‘Lovers are encouraged to donate their organs whenever possible’, ‘To prevent global warming and its ill effects, lovers and couples are encouraged by the party to plant saplings and trees’, ‘All members are required to volunteer for blood donation on 14 February’ and ‘We will be supporting lover couples during their old age’. “Everything is my idea, from A to Z,” says Kumar Sri Sri proudly, “because I wanted to do some social service.” He points to a new addition on the list: a message deploring right-wing elements who apparently conduct weddings between dogs, cats and monkeys on Valentine’s Day. “They’re humiliating love,” Kumar says darkly.

After the party’s ten-point programme comes an exhortation from the ‘Revolutionary leader of all lovers, B Kumar Sri Sri’ directed at all of India’s ‘30 crore lovers’. He wants them to sign up. But how did he arrive at the figure? “There are 128 crore people in India. Of these, 30 crore will be lovers, it’s confirmed,” he says firmly, “If you lined up a minimum of 10 people, at least three of them would have had love marriages.”

If his party should come to power, he will make sure a census is conducted to bolster his claim. This is crucial because reservations for lovers is the biggest thing on his agenda. “Low-class lovers who marry without their parents giving them the ‘green signal’ are usually cut off and left without support,” explains Kumar Sri Sri.

That, he says, is what inspires solidarity among party members, and also why he finds himself issuing up to 25 new membership cards a week. One of these belongs to Manikandan, 23, a lanky lad with a fuzzy cumulus of hair. He’s been a devout ILP member since its inception at his sister’s wedding at Vadapalani Temple, and he hopes that Kumar will help facilitate his own happy ending one day. “I’ve loved a girl for three years,” he says shyly. “She teaches a computer class in Perambur. I’m the office boy there.”

“Studies, beauty, blackness, fatness, all that is nothing if there is love,” declares Kumar, “If lovers roam about together happily, exchanging personal details and confidences, all these differences won’t matter. Love is God to me.”

There’s one miracle that even divine help cannot bring about, though. Dramatic differences in ‘background-u’ (wealth), says Kumar Sri Sri, will inevitably lead to ‘reject-u’. “Say, I see a lady,” he says, “She’s very pretty. Okay. I’m attracted. But if she’s a governor’s daughter, or a cine star, there’s no success. Don’t ever believe the films—they take reality and blow it up like a balloon.”

That doesn’t stop Kumar from spouting filmi dialogues. “Love has existed ever since man was on Earth. Look at Krishna! And the Taj Mahal! But nobody else in the world has done what I’ve done. And that’s what’s special about me.” Such fiery words are all that the party’s lovers must live on, at least until 2011, when Kumar gets to yell “action!”