When 53-year-old K Sundara wants to go to Kasaragod town from his residential locality Vani Nagar in Manjeshwar, he boards a bus named Mahbub. Sundara does not pay his fare as his ride is free, always.
The owner of the bus has been giving him a concession for the past 10 years thanks to his self-professed stature as a social worker. Then, at Kerala Bhagawati Hotel in Manjeshwar, Sundara does not have to pay for his meals because he is known as a helpful and resourceful man in the locality.
A known face of Vani Nagar, Sundara is the Dalit man who has now become a nightmare for the Bharatiya Janata Party in Kerala. Based on his complaint, Kerala’s BJP state president K Surendran is faced with election bribery charges.
What is more striking about Sundara, however, is his struggle for self-respect in a democratic system which favours established political parties that have ample financial resources and clout.
The case against Surendran hinges on a statement given by Sundara that Kasaragode BJP leaders Suresh Naik, Ashok Shetty and Sunil Naik gave him Rs 2.5 lakh and a cell phone worth Rs 15,000 to prevent him from fielding an election nomination at Manjeshwar constituency. Both Surendran and Sundara were to contest in the constituency.
After Sundara failed to file his nomination, Surendran contested in a three-way contest against the Indian Union Muslim League and CPI(M). When results were declared on 2 May, Surendran lost the election to AKM Ashraf of IUML by 1,190 votes.
The complaint against Surendran was first raised by CPI(M) candidate VV Ramesh who came third in the polls. Sundara’s incriminating statement is now part of the complaint. Sundara has also alleged that he was forced to join the BJP.
As per the direction of Kasaragod Judicial First Class Magistrate Court-II, an FIR was registered under section 117 B of IPC (election bribery) against K Surendran. The police is also probing the three local leaders – Suresh Naik, Ashok Shetty and Sunil Naik – for alleged abduction of Sundara.
A Common Man and His Public Service
In a candid interview with The Quint, Sundara repeated the statement he gave to the Kasaragod police, “When the BJP leaders approached me, I demanded Rs 15 lakh from them. They gave me only Rs 2.5 lakh and a phone”. Sundara was allegedly approached because the BJP wanted the votes that he could poll, to go into Surendran’s kitty.
In the 2016 Assembly elections Sundara had contested as an independent candidate and had won 467 votes, which is significant because Surendran lost that election by a very narrow margin of 89 votes.
In 2021, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Kerala fielded Sundara. “We were sure that his candidature would impact the BJP. As a secular party the BSP fielded him in a calculated move to dent the BJP,” a senior leader of the BSP told The Quint, on the condition of anonymity. Predictably, Sundara’s withdrawal from the election, would have benefitted Surendran the most.
But Sundara says there is more to him than just the complaint against BJP. For starters, he is a Yakshagana, artist. “I started performing Yakshagana when I was a 17-year-old. The art form was my first mode of interaction with the public,” Sundara said.
Kasaragod district shares its borders with Karnataka where Yakshagana is a traditional art form. From Yakshagana performance to politics, it was not a short walk for Sundara.
However flawed his alleged acceptance of bribe from BJP may be, Sundara, said that “public service” to him, has been a way to “gain respect”.
At 20, the man who had been working as a daily wage earner, doing odd jobs, turned towards helping those in his locality. “People around me need health care and better living conditions,” he said. Sundara, who belongs to the Mogara Scheduled Caste, went about ferrying pregnant women of his community to Kasaragod hospitals for healthcare.
A Class IX pass out, he also helped landless Muslim labourers get identification documents. “I can read, write and understand the official language in government documents. That helped me in serving others,” he said.
Father of six children, Sundara is separated from his wife, Revathi. “She could not bear the fact that I spend more time caring for others than my own children,” he laughed. Sundara’s eldest son drives a taxi. His younger son works in the forest department. Of his four daughters, the youngest is still in school.
From an Independent to BSP and BJP
Sundara’s interaction with the public gave him the confidence to contest panchayat elections in early 2000s. He, however, lost that battle. In 2016, when he decided to contest Assembly elections, he had only one aim: “An MLA will get more respect than a panchayat president, I felt. So, I contested.”
Though self-respect was at the core of his ambition, Sundara was not sure he would get votes. “I had printed just 400 campaign pamphlets for distribution,” he said, adding that he had no funds even to hire a microphone and loudspeaker for his campaign.
"“Many people told me that I would get only a handful of votes. I was very happy when I got over 400 votes.”" - K Sundara
While many told him that he got votes because his name is similar to BJP’s K Surendran, Sundara thinks it is “selfless social service” which earned him public support.
In 2021, Sundara approached the Bahujan Samaj Party leadership for a ticket. “As a party, BSP observed that he is a man from a downtrodden community who is popular in the locality. We gave him a ticket even though he was not a cadre of the party,” BSP’s state vice president Jijo Kuttanad told The Quint. Sundara, however, has a more grandiose version of the story to tell. “I felt that Mayawati (BSP supremo) would want me to work for the party. I was attracted to her politics,” he said.
BJP, however, got the better of him, he now alleges. “I am a poor man. When they abducted me, I was scared and BSP could not help me. I accepted the money that they offered and I am not happy with it anymore,” he said.
The BSP state leadership says they had lodged a complaint with Kasaragod police when Sundara went missing before 22 March, the date of filing nominations. “The police told us that Sundara joined the BJP out of his own will and that they do not want to investigate the complaint any further. Had they taken up the case then, Surendran would have been disqualified,” Kuttanad said.
Democracy that Failed to Embolden?
For BSP, which has been a fringe party in Kerala for long, Sundara’s case has brought in recognition. “We are suddenly in news and this has created a kind of awareness about our work. That is positive even though we are saddened that we are being noted over a controversy,” Kuttanad said. He highlighted that, it is difficult for a man like Sundara to survive the election process.
“Poaching is rampant in the electoral process and it is difficult for a common man like Sundara to surface unscarred. BSP has not been able to make a mark in Kerala because we were unable to field money like established political parties here. Then imagine Sundara’s plight,” he added.
The BSP could not have protected Sundara from influence or harm of any other political party because it does not have strong roots in Kasaragod, the leadership said.
Sundara, however, said that he wishes to continue in politics. “I will continue my work. I hope my wife understands my line of work and returns to me,” he hoped. Meanwhile, his complaint is still creating ripples in Kerala as the police is in hot pursuit of the BJP money trail.
BJP’s K Surendran was unavailable for comments. The article will be updated if and when he responds.
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