Translated literally, dhartipakad means “one who clings on to the earth” (dharti = earth; pakad/ pakar = grasp). The word suggests both tenacity and defiance. In a country where general elections are like people’s festival, the nickname dhartipakad personifies the maverick souls and their never-say-die spirit— the ones who have contested unsuccessfully in several elections against top political leaders.

Dr K Padmarajan from Salem in Tamil Nadu has repeatedly contested elections across several Indian states. “It is the right of every citizen of India,” says the septuagenarian, engaged in the business of trader in tyre retreading who filed his papers for the 201st time in Wayanad for the same seat as Congress President Rahul Gandhi in 2019. If that wasn’t enough of a surprise, here’s the knockout blow – he has lost them all, on purpose.

“If I win an election, I will get a heart attack,” chuckles Padmarajan about his rather odd endeavour.

For every loss he has encountered, the feeling of joy and pride has only multiplied for him over the years. He contests elections not to win but to create a record. “I know it is impossible for me to win, but all I want is to set a record of losing the maximum number of elections. And to achieve this, I will fight elections for the rest of my life,” he says.

It all started in 1988 when he contested the assembly election in Mettur just to prove that even a common man can stand for an election. He also registered his first loss during this election against N Sreerangan, a candidate from the CPI (M). The self-proclaimed “Election King” from Salem has got his name in the Limca Book of Records for being the “Most Unsuccessful Candidate”.

His highest vote count was 6,273 which he had received in the Mettur assembly constituency in 2011. Padmarajan has stood for elections from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka and New Delhi.

He has received schooling till class 8; he is also a homoeopathic doctor. Padmarajan has had no political affiliations and has always contested independently.

From the local panchayat elections to the presidential elections, he has stood against some of the biggest names in politics, including Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh, PV Narasimha Rao, Pranab Mukherjee, Pratibha Patil, KR Narayanan and APJ Abdul Kalam. He has also contested against Jayalalithaa, M Karunanidhi, AK Antony, SM Krishna and Jagdish Shettar.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, he even filed his nomination to contest in Vadodara against Narendra Modi during the Lok Sabha elections, but his papers were rejected due to a “signature” issue. Though he doesn’t indulge in any form of campaigning after filing his nomination, Padmarajan says his losses have cost him more than Rs 50 lakh in deposit money. He even credits himself for a constitutional amendment. “In the 1996 elections, I filed nominations for five Lok Sabha seats. It was because of me that the Representation of the People Act, 1951, was amended to allow a candidate to contest only from two seats,” he claims.

However, Padmarajan is not alone in this strange obsession.

Septuagenarian Kaka Joginder Singh, also known as Dhartipakad, was a textile-shop owner who contested and lost over 300 elections. He died in 1998. In elections, he always contested independently, and always lost his security deposits.

Singh looked at the security deposit as his “humble contribution” to the nation’s coffers and said that he never campaigned or used the money to earn support. After 1997, the security deposit was raised to Rs 15,000.

His election promises included: repaying all foreign loans, more character building in schools and bringing back the barter system as a panacea for the Indian economy.

He earned the nickname Dhartipakad after several unsuccessful runs for the post of the President of India. The year with the greatest yield for him was during the tenth presidential elections in 1992 in which he earned fourth place in the polling with 1,135 votes, losing to Shankar Dayal Sharma; it was his best performance. He also contested elections from 14 states of India in the 1990s, mostly for state assemblies.

In 1992, he contested against KR Narayanan for the position of the vice president of India and secured one vote. In 1998, he also tried to contest elections against BJP leaders LK Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Mohan Lal, a cloth merchant from Bhopal, is also nicknamed Dhartipakad for contesting elections against five different prime ministers and losing the security deposits in all. Another remarkable example of persistence and commitment to the ballot is Nagarmal Bajoria, 94, also known by the nickname of Dhartipakad; he has contested from over 278 constituencies.

He has been fighting every election as an independent candidate since 1984. And, each time, he has lost his security deposit.

He contested from Patna and Delhi in 2019. Also known as a social crusader– for digging tube wells and paying for marriages of underprivileged girls – Bajoria has contested Lok Sabha polls against Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani, among others. There are others who have contested several elections unsuccessfully, but not necessarily known by the sobriquet.

It’s possible to dismiss these unusual candidates as mere attention seekers who receive disproportionate attention with respect to the few hundred votes they fetch. But it can be also argued that these head-turners – some of whom claim to have contested 200-300 polls at various levels – represent the quintessential spirit of Indian democracy, where even the dissenter or jester is offered space.

Long before Narendra Modi discovered Varanasi as an election destination, the city of piety had Narendra Nath Dubey “Adig”. Often referred to as Kashi’s Dhartipakad, he has been fighting every election as an independent candidate since 1984, losing his security deposit each time.

Shyam Babu Subudhi, 84, a resident of Odisha’s Berhampur, has contested 32 elections since 1962 and lost every one of them. He says that he has to “continue the fight against corruption” even if he loses his deposit. His most memorable contest was the one against the then prime minister, PV Narasimha Rao, for the Berhampur seat.

However, the case of Bhagwati Prasad Dikshit alias Ghorewala1 from Kanpur stands out among the perennial losers for netting more than 80,000 votes in the 1980 mid-term Lok Sabha polls. The maverick singlehandedly managed his election races with no resources at all at his disposal. Known as Ghorewala because he always rode a horse, he was placed third in the contest.

The sitting Lok Sabha member, Manohar Lal, netted such a small number of votes that his security deposit was forfeited. The winner was Arif Mohammad Khan who came from Bulandshahr to make his maiden entry to the Lok Sabha as a Congress nominee.

Ghorewala contested every Lok Sabha election from 1962 onwards. Though he was a no-challenge to the four-time winner, SM Banerjee (independent supported by the left parties), from 1957-71, he always made his presence felt.

In 1980, youngsters and the Brahmin community, perceiving themselves as neglected in the Kanpur political arena, decided to support Ghorewala who himself was surprised to see such wide support for him. He had resorted to participation in the elections to lodge his protest against corruption and never dreamt of bagging that many votes.

In 1958, he was sacked from the then Kanpur Development Board (replaced by Kanpur Municipal Corporation in 1959) as a mid-level officer as he refused to toe the line of his seniors in the case of an unauthorised construction whose demolition he oversaw, thus, incurring his seniors’ wrath. After three years, he gatecrashed a meeting chaired by the then UP chief minister CB Gupta at Green Park and raised his concerns about the corruption plaguing government offices.

Instead of listening to him, the chief minister asked the officers present to take Dikshit to a mental hospital. Dikshit spent some months there, but was declared sane by the attending doctors. However, he insisted on a certificate in this regard so that his nomination form in the coming elections could not be rejected on the grounds of insanity.

Thus started his electoral journey. Often described as an indigenous Robin Hood and sometimes Don Quixote, his electoral journey did not remain restricted to Kanpur alone. He contested several times from Raibareli against Indira Gandhi. In 1971, during an election tour, Dikshit was spotted by Indira Gandhi at Kanpur. In a jocular vein, she asked him why he had not filed his nomination against her this time. Dikshit explained his financial constraints that did not allow him to deposit the security. The prime minister asked her accompanying officer to give the required amount to Dikshit. Once, he even filed his nomination for the post of the President of India. Another notable contest was when he went to Chikmagalur in Karnataka to contest against Indira Gandhi in a bye-election.

A man with a frugal lifestyle, Dikshit used to live on the roof of his house which was a dilapidated structure. When his horse died, he lost interest in electoral politics altogether.

Equally interesting is the case of Hasnoo Ram Ambedkari, hailing from Agra. Now 75 years old, Hasnoo Ram has contested as many as 94 elections so far, including for assembly, Lok Sabha, panchayat and district cooperative bank elections. In 1985 he quit his government job as a petty revenue official hoping to contest the assembly elections on a BSP ticket.

Denied a BSP nomination, he entered the fray as an independent candidate from Fatehpur assembly constituency and secured as many as 17,711 votes. He has contested 12 times from Agra Rural, an equal number of times from Khairagarh and six times from Fatehpur assembly constituencies. His aim is to contest 100 elections.

The Power of The Ballot: Travail and Triumph in the Elections

Excerpted with permission from The Power of The Ballot: Travail and Triumph in the Elections, Anil Maheshwari and Vipul Maheshwari, Bloomsbury.