Senior Congress leader and Lok Sabha MP from Kanyakumari, H Vasanthakumar, died of Covid-19 at a Chennai hospital on Friday evening. He was 70.
Admitted to Apollo Hospitals on August 10 with Covid-19 symptoms, he later tested positive for the infection and was subsequently put on ventilator support. He was being treated by a team of multidisciplinary doctors for severe Covid pneumonia.
A leading businessman as well, Vasanthakumar was a familiar face for the people of Tamil Nadu even before he joined active politics, thanks to his leading consumer durables chain Vasanth & Co.
In his condolence message, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted, “His strides in business and social service efforts were noteworthy. During my interactions with him, I always saw his passion towards Tamil Nadu’s progress. Condolences to his family and supporters. Om Shanti.”
Vasanthakumar’s political mentor was his elder brother, Kumari Anandan, a former state Congress chief and a veteran from the generation of former chief minister K Kamaraj. The family has a senior BJP leader, too, in Tamilisai Soundararajan, Telangana Governor and Anandan’s daughter.
A two-time Congress MLA, Vasanthakumar quit as an Assembly member to successfully contest from Kanyakumari in 2019 General Election – he defeated BJP’s Pon Radhakrishnan, a former Union minister. According to assets declared, he was the richest candidate in Tamil Nadu in that election.
During the polls, when Vasanthakumar and Soundararajan were contesting for the Congress and BJP, respectively, from nearby constituencies, Anandan had told The Indian Express that “en vote oruvanukkum, vazhthu iruvarukkum (my vote for one and wishes for both). My vote is for Vasanthakumar.”
Vasanthakumar was also one of the earliest game-changers in Tamil Nadu’s retail sector, with business ideas that played a big role in familiarising many with consumer electronics and home appliances that were considered luxury products at the time. Hundreds of people in the state managed to buy products such as transistors, fans and TV sets three decades ago with the help of a payment system that allowed smaller amounts in monthly instalments from his shops — like present-day EMIs.
In fact, he was an owner who also became the brand ambassador of his own retail chain — there was a famous advertisement on Doordarshan in which Vasanthakumar, clad in white and wearing a jacket, turns to the camera on a rolling chair to publicise his brand.
“We used to call him Punnagai Mannan (the smiling king) in Congress groups – always (had) a smiling face,” Congress national spokesperson Khushbu Sundar. “He was a staunch Congress leader, always clad in white shirts and pants with a Tricolour Congress shawl on his shoulder. He belonged to a generation that worshiped Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress. He was also a staunch supporter of Sonia Gandhi.”
E V K S Elangovan, former state Congress chief, also said Vasanthakumar was very close to Sonia. “She had great affection for him (and) admired his work. She treated him like a soldier of the party in Tamil Nadu. His demise is a big loss to the Congress.”