B Kumar Sri Sri, 33 (not to be confused with another Sri Sri), may seem like a hero who has jumped from the story of a mainstream Tamil film into real life. Why? Well, what does one make of a person who runs a political party based on the ideology of love? The man knows a thing or two about the four-letter word. And he is the head of an outfit called the Indian Lovers Party (ILP).

The ILP is a registered political party headquartered in Chennai, which runs on the ideology of the right to love and marry anyone one wants. Its members, growing in number by the day, help distressed couples, counsel prejudiced families about inter-caste or inter-class marriages and help married couples with their problems. Sri Sri claims the party, formed two years ago, now has 100,000 members.

Love rules: ILP workers (standing, from left) Venkatesh, Kishore Kumar and party founder Sri Sri on Marina Beach. Sharp Image

What is drawing thousands of people to this party, hinged on a seemingly ludicrous political agenda? Sri Sri’s initiative comes within a context where an emotion such as love, or a display of it, can evoke violent reactions from politically- affiliated organizations. It is after all a society where honour killings exist—and are justified.

“I sometimes wonder if we, as citizens, are really free. I sometimes think this country is not even a democracy," says Sri Sri. “I formed this party as a reaction against what is going on in Indian society. When you have parties like the Sri Ram Sene blackening the faces of young couples and anti-Valentine’s Day parties Shiv Sena and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena going against (the) principles of humanism, what hopes do young people have? But more than them, I’m even more disappointed by the bigger parties (the Congress and the BJP). How can they allow criminals in the Ram Sene or Shiv Sena to hurt innocent people? These parties are against the principles of love. By tolerating them, these big parties are against the principles of love and humanism," he adds.

Sri Sri launched the party on 14 February 2008 in Chennai with the purpose of helping people in love. “All the lovers of the world unite" is one bullet-point on his home page explaining the party agenda. The party’s logo has a sketch of the Taj Mahal within a heart shape, with an arrow impaling the heart. On the left, the logo has the party’s initials—ILP. Surf further and you will find innumerable images of Sri Sri posing with his hands locked in a namaste, and in white clothes, like the ubiquitous Indian neta.

“People make fun of me and my party, but I don’t care," says Sri Sri, who plans to contest state elections next year—and, if all goes according to the power of love, the Lok Sabha poll in 2014. “Nobody knows what all I’m doing and the people whom we have helped." The party has offices in Hyderabad, Coimbatore, Kochi, Madurai and some districts in Tamil Nadu.

Mention Sri Sri’s name to members of the party and you open the floodgates of praise. “There was no one like him, is no one like him, and will never be anyone like him," says Jagannathan, 32, a party member who goes by one name. “He is the only person to have thought of the condition of the youth of this country." You have to wait for minutes to get a word in edgeways.

The ILP tries to help couples whose parents or families are against their marriage. First, it tries to convince itself of their commitment to each other, then it tries to negotiate with their parents.

In February last year, for instance, Sri Sri helped G. Srinivasan, 22, a shopkeeper in Chennai’s T. Nagar, marry N. Lakshmi, 20. Srinivasan sought Sri Sri’s help because Lakshmi’s family was opposing the match. Sri Sri talked to the couple, asking them a series of questions—were they sure the relationship would last, what were their plans, where would they stay, how much would they be willing to compromise? He even spoke to their friends, or “witnesses". Convinced, Sri Sri then spoke to the parents. In time, they agreed to the marriage.

The ILP has a hotline number and members try to sensitize people to issues such as dowry harassment and abuse from in-laws. To check violence, party members sometimes work in tandem with the police.

Sri Sri hasn’t had to deal with any cases of same-sex love yet. But, he says, “People must have the right to choose their partners—even if it is of the same gender. If any such couple does (approach us), we will decide as per the specifics of the case."

When the party was formed, Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi was so impressed with the concept that he announced that people who had love marriages would get ration cards in a record 16 days.

The roots of the concept lie in Sri Sri’s own experience. Raised in Nalgonda, Andhra Pradesh, Sri Sri came to Chennai in 1989 as a teenager. He fell in love with a Tamil girl, his neighbour’s daughter. Both families opposed the match, with his own family baying for his blood back in Andhra Pradesh. The relationship continued through the years, however, surviving the sort of drama that goes into a Mani Ratnam film (no surprises: Sri Sri worked as a make-up artiste in the Tamil film industry in Chennai). His father wanted him to marry within his Kamma community—the family was assured of Rs5 lakh in dowry. But Sri Sri eventually married his sweetheart at the Vadapalani Dandayudhapani Temple in Chennai in 2000. He has two sons now.

“All that experience and difficulty led me to think deeply about the cracks and disunity in our society," says Sri Sri. “In that period, I came across many people who went through heartbreak and pain due to social norms and wondered if people should undergo all this. I wanted to do something that no one has done: address issues relating to love life through politics."

For all the party’s focus on the youth, Sri Sri’s concerns appear directed towards their elders. “The problem is with the older generation—the parents of youngsters refuse to change according to the times. Even now in Chennai, parents tend to understand marriage in terms of caste, community and money only. Most parents don’t understand their children," he says.

The party conducts social programmes in the city and its outskirts, with talks in schools and colleges about matters of the heart. His party members double up as counsellors. The sessions are forums for people to discuss matters related to love and marriage, marital life and forced compromises.

Jagannathan, who has been with the party since its inception, was drawn to it after he lost out in love. “Nobody supports love," he declares. “When young people in love don’t get emotional support from near and dear ones, they take extreme steps. Slashing wrists, writing love letters in blood and consuming kerosene due to heartbreak, these are all useless things youngsters pick up from movies. We want to stop them from doing it," he says.

Things didn’t work out also for P. Venkatesh, 25, a party member and an executive with Airtel in Chennai. The girl he fell in love with was from a more affluent family than his, and was too scared to fight for the relationship. “I’m sure things could have been different if I had come to Sri Sri sir’s office," he says. “We have connected with the youth, that is why we have 100,000 members," he says. I don’t want others to suffer like me. I did not get the correct advice about what to do."

Clearly, whether you find love or not, advice won’t be in short supply at the Indian Lovers Party. Reason enough to fall in love, or reason enough to cast a ballot for love?