CHENNAI: H Vasanthakumar, one of the eight Congress MPs from Tamil Nadu, succumbed to complications caused by COVID-19 in Chennai on Friday evening.
The 70-year-old is the first MP to have lost his life due to the virus. Vasanthakumar, a well-known businessman, represented the Kanniyakumari constituency and was one of the five working presidents of the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee. He was also the state president of the party’s traders’ wing.
His body will be placed at Sathyamoorthi Bhavan, the Congress headquarters in Chennai, at 10 am on Saturday to allow the public to pay tribute to the MP. Corporation officials said the MP had tested negative for COVID shortly before his death and hence COVID burial procedures would not apply in the case. Congress’ flags will be flown at half-mast and all events will be cancelled for a week, the party said.
Vasanthakumar was born on April 14, 1950, in Agastheewaram in Kanyakumari district. His father, Harikrishna Perumal was a freedom fighter and several of his relatives were Congress members. Vasanthakumar’s elder brother Kumari Ananthan is a senior Congress leader while his niece Tamilisai Soundarajan is Telangana Governor and former president of the State BJP.
An ardent follower of late Chief Minister and Congressman K Kamaraj, Vasanthakumar started off as a Congress worker before being elevated to various district and state level postings. He did his BA at the S.T.Hindu College in Nagercoil and MA (in Tamil) at the Madurai Kamaraj University before moving to Chennai.
Vasanthakumar was best known for his company, Vasanth & Co, a retail chain selling electronics and home appliances that he founded in 1978, after working as a salesman in the VGP group for 13 years. Vasanth & Co, an iconic brand in its own right, now has 86 branches across Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and even Bengaluru. In 2008, he launched Vasanth TV.
With the company’s logo and advertisements featuring his smiling visage, Vasanthakumar was instantly recognisable across the State as a successful businessman and philanthropist. Nineties’ kids, in particular, recall with fondness his appearances on the popular Doordarshan cooking show, Saapida Vaanga, which was sponsored by his company.
His first foray in electoral politics was in 2006 when he contested in the Assembly elections and won from the Nanguneri constituency on a Congress ticket. The victory was significant for the party, coming after a gap of three decades. He won again from the constituency in the 2016 Assembly polls but gave up the seat to contest in the 2019 Parliamentary elections from Kanniyakumari, facing off against former union minister and BJP leader Pon Radhakrishnan to whom he'd lost in 2014. He defeated Radhakrishnan by a margin of 2.5 lakh votes. Incidentally, Kumari Ananthan too was elected MP from the erstwhile Nagercoil constituency in 1977.
As an MP, Vasanthakumar worked tirelessly for his constituency and since the pandemic struck the State in March had been working on creating awareness about the virus among the masses. Days before he was admitted to the hospital with Covid-19, he tweeted on August 7 that he had offered Kabasura Kudineer to members of the public at Padmanabhapuram, Thakkalai, Thiruvattar and would be doing so in other places as well. He is believed to have contracted the infection during one such public engagement.
The late MP is survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter. While Kumari Ananthan broke into sobs during a phone-in interview with a news channel, his daughter Tamilisai issued a statement noting that despite working in different political movements they remained bound by familial love.
Condolences pour in
As news of his demise spread, condolences poured in from across the political spectrum. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his condolence message on Twitter, said he was saddened by the MP’s demise and noted his success in business and social service efforts. “During my interactions with him, I always saw his passion towards Tamil Nadu’s progress,” Modi said.
Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami, mourning Vasanthakumar’s loss, praised his philanthropy. “He reached a height in his life by starting out as a salesman. He worked for education and economical upliftment of the poor and downtrodden people,” Palaniswami said.
DMK president MK Stalin described Vasanthakumar as an example of perseverance. “I spoke with him some days ago when he was at the hospital and enquired about his health and I was hoping he will get well soon. But, Corona snatched him away from us,” Stalin said.
Describing Vasanthakumar’s death as an unfathomable loss, Governor Banwarilal Purohit, in a statement, recalled him as a successful businessman, politician, and born fighter who spent his lifetime working for the welfare of the people of Tamil Nadu.
Radhakrishnan, who contested against him in 2014 and 2019, offered prayers for his soul, noting that he had known Vasanthakumar from when he was a student. “He was very staunch in his ideological beliefs. Victory or defeat, we remained good friends,” he said.
‘Staunch Congressman, always ready to help’
Vasanthakumar’s demise comes as a huge blow to the Congress party with leaders across the country expressing grief. Congress scion Rahul Gandhi said the loss came as a shock “His commitment to the Congress ideology of serving the people will remain in our hearts forever,” he said, while the All India Congress Committee recalled Vasanthakumar as a staunch Congressman, a true leader of the people and a beloved MP. “He will be sorely missed by all members of the Congress party & his followers. Our prayers are with his family in this time of grief,” the AICC said in a statement.
State Congress president KS Alagiri said that Vasanthakumar freely spent from his own pocket to help people and undertake welfare projects. “He always extended a helping hand to the poor and needy of his constituency and party cadres across the State. This is a big loss to the party, cadres and the constituency,” he said.
Congress Lok Sabha MP A Chellakumar, told The New Indian Express that Vasanthakumar thought constantly about the welfare of his constituency. “When Parliament was in session he was often the first person to arrive and last person to leave the House,” he said. “Every day he would hand over some representation, related to his constituency, to ministers and authorities. He never missed a chance to raise his voice in the Parliament for the welfare of his constituency,” he said.
Senior Congress leader and fellow Lok Sabha MP Su Thirunavukkarasar recalled Vasanthakumar as a man with a ready smile and will to help others. “He died due to his efforts to assist people during the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said. MDMK general secretary Vaiko, TMC president GK Vasan, PMK founder Dr S Ramadoss also condoled his death.
‘Big blow to retail trade’
The Tamil Nadu business community mourned the loss of Vasanthakumar, describing his meteoric rise from a humble salesman to running a business empire as an example to the youth. VGP group chairman, VGP Santhosham, recalled how Vasanthakumar had worked for the group for 13 years before starting his own business.
“Vasanthakumar is an example to today's youth of how hardwork and dedication can help one reach greater heights,” he said, describing him as a down-to-earth man of dedication and verve. “I was worried when he was admitted to hospital but he said he will be back soon. Now, this tragedy has happened,” Santhosham said.
Tamil Chamber of Commerce president Chozha Naachiar said Vasanthakumar’s demise came as a big blow to retail trade. "He was a field worker in both business and politics and he has contributed a lot to his constituency," said Naachiar.
Tamil Nadu Vanigar Sangangalin Peramaippu State president AM Vikramaraja said his death was also a blow to traders in the State. "He is irreplaceable. He was responsible for providing jobs to thousands of workers," Vikramaraja said.
(With inputs from M Abdul Rabi in Nagercoil, Vinodh Arulappan in Madurai and C Shivakumar in Chennai)