x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The All India Lovers Party, campaigning for couples kept apart by caste

Kumar Sri Sri created the ILP in 2008 to support couples who wish to marry despite parental disapproval over differences in caste and religion, but has run into trouble with some of India's traditionalists and has so far failed to gain a parliamentary seat..

Kumar Sri Sri, right, founder of the All India Lovers Party, distributes campaign leaflets on Marina Beach in Chennai.
Kumar Sri Sri, right, founder of the All India Lovers Party, distributes campaign leaflets on Marina Beach in Chennai.

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

Even in a democracy known for its political diversity, Mr Kumar, a 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, Mr Kumar created the ILP in 2008 to support couples who wish to marry despite parental disapproval over differences in caste and religion.

Those who stray outside the social 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.

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 headquarters, 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 past three years.

"My goal is that we must get at least 10 people from the party in the national parliament by 2014," Mr Kumar said.

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

Mr 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, she recalled how Mr 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 Mr 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 [Dh16,300] or 500,000 rupees," he said.

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

"It made me realise all the problems lovers face, because their families want them to marry according to caste and money," Mr 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 about 20 volunteers who help paste posters and hand out leaflets, and Mr 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 is not 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, Mr 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 Mr 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.

But not everyone is enamoured of Mr Kumar's politics. The conservative Hindu Makkal Katchi (HMK) party has campaigned against the ILP, objecting in particular to Mr Kumar's support for Valentine's Day.

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

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

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

When the ballots were counted on Friday in Tamil Nadu's state election, Mr 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."