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Five About Karti
Faceoff over ‘phoney’ deal; PC ‘in house’ defence of son faces BJP fire; His Father’s (Troubled) Son.... When Outlook approached Karti P. Chidambaram for his version of the events that have catapulted him to newspaper headlines, some cutting ones at that, he volleyed back an sms: “Version of what?” This, as his father, Union home minister P. Chidambaram, was using dime novel melodrama in Parliament: “It would be much simpler if somebody took a dagger and plunged it into my heart rather than questioning my integrity.” It was compelling stuff—a powerful father defending his son, who is under intense scrutiny for his ‘role’ in the Aircel-Maxis deal (while we are nowhere near a final verdict on this, the political opposition insists that it continues to “smell suspicious”).
So what then defines Karti’s reaction—is it nonchalance, bluster, or confidence? Or a mash of all three? Actually, for all the footprints Karti leaves on social media (he has got a dedicated website and tweets regularly), little is known about him. Various fragments make their way to the media: the boy-man, the politician, the businessman, the sports lover, or simply, a son following an illustrious father’s footsteps. A connected picture is necessary to understand if Karti P. Chidambaram is on his way to becoming a liability for his father. Karti chose not to comment to Outlook for this story.
Depending on who you speak with, there are different descriptions of Karti—‘fixer’, ‘political non-entity’, ‘obsessed with publicity’, ‘a boys’ boy who spends time with his tennis gang’, even ‘not such a natty dresser’. But there’s a common label—‘abrasive’—that repeatedly surfaces. Those who know junior Chidambaram would say he’s behaving true to form. And while people are willing to cut his father some slack, Karti, 40, can’t afford the luxury. “He’s only one of 78 AICC leaders and he’s got there because he is Chidambaram’s son,” sniffs a senior Tamil Nadu Congress leader on condition of anonymity.
Political rivals from Tamil Nadu are (predictably) caustic: “Karti has consistently exploited his father’s position. He is a full-time businessman. Politics is his hobby. He has cronies in Tamil Nadu who from time to time put up posters in his praise to keep his image alive in public.” Is that all he brings to the table? “He brings an intellectual energy and enthusiasm to any discussion. Most importantly, he is decisive,” says Karti’s friend and a Chennai socialite, Minnie Menon. Karti himself would like to perpetuate this man-of-action image. In a chat on democracy with Outlook in December 2011, he had said: “We are a very inefficient country. We need to move away from endless discussions and debates to decisive decisions.”
There’s no denying that Karti is media-savvy (even if he’s nowhere to be seen at the moment). Reporters on the tennis circuit (the game is a passion with him) say he used to constantly buttonhole them for a ‘quote’, because “he’s a publicity hound”. Karti recognises this only too well. In 2008, Outlook wrote on Karti’s birthday celebrations, where hangers-on had put posters up in Chennai hailing him as TN’s Rahul Gandhi. After the piece came out, Karti wrote to Outlook: “Good to know that political posters catch your attention. That’s exactly what they are meant to do. The funny thing about politics is that you can do as much work as you want in the grassroots and the media doesn’t give two hoots, but the minute something is done in an in-your-face manner, they notice.”
The Aircel-Maxis deal is not the first time he’s landed in hot water, be it in politics or the politics of sports. Like when he became the chairman of the organising committee of the Chennai Open in 2010, causing much heartburn among tennis maestro Vijay Amritraj’s fans. Though he’s lying low after the AIADMK government grabbed power last May—CM Jayalalitha and P. Chidambaram have a 20-year history of hostility—it was a different story in 2010.
That year, he antagonised the Youth Congress, which Rahul Gandhi was trying to strengthen. M. Yuvaraj, who was elected TN Youth Congress president, complained publicly that Karti had distributed Youth Congress membership cards “which he was not authorised to do” at an event. When Outlook contacted Yuvaraj, he laughed it off, saying, “That’s water under the bridge now”. That’s also because the Congress does not amount to much in TN. Karti waded into controversy again in 2010 when he described Congress leaders as “carrying palanquins for Dravidian parties”.
Even with the dynastic nature of Indian politics, Karti has never fought an assembly or a Lok Sabha election. He is content with running his father’s campaign from Sivaganga, which Chidambaram has won seven times from 1984. When Outlook quizzed him in Sivaganga (during the 2009 Lok Sabha elections) about why he had not followed the growth trajectory of the other babalog in politics, he said, “You seem to think I belong to a group of armchair inheritors.... Babalog! Perhaps you should travel with me in the districts to get a better sense.”
The 2009 elections revealed the side of Karti that BJP ideologue S. Gurumurthy terms as “someone who peddles influence”. In the cable (revealed by Wikileaks) sent on May 13, 2009, by Frederick Kaplan, a consular official in Chennai’s US consulate, Karti got a mention. According to the cable, Karti admitted he does give “a few sops” to villages that might be on the fence about supporting his father. The cable goes on to state that Karti categorically denied paying cash for votes, “but not because of any moral objection to doing so. He does not pay cash for votes in his rural constituency because it’s impossible to distribute the money effectively when villages are spread so far apart”.
Kaplan then summarises Karti’s position as “bribes are useful but not necessary to political success”. To quote the cable, “Chidambaram said that candidates need a strong party apparatus in order to win elections, but that ‘bribes can help put you over the top’ in a close race”. It also quotes the Tamil Nadu Youth Congress president as saying, “Karti is doing a good job in Sivaganga. He is distributing some money to the people, which his father won’t do.” In response, Karti tweeted thus last May: “Wikileaks is no sacred document. Even in this unverified cable there is no allegation of any illegality in Sivaganga.”
And what about Karti the businessman? While his business interests are under scrutiny, some trends emerge—“a man who has his hand in many things, but plays from the fringes”. He runs a number of firms which offer consultancy and legal services. For one, he prefers to opt for equity in companies instead of payouts. Businessmen who have known Karti or have worked with him say he was always “over-ambitious and seemed to be a guy in a hurry”. The broad areas in which Karti operates include legal consultancy, investments, healthcare and hospitality. His companies—Ausbridge Holdings, Chess Management Services, Chess Health Care, Halidon Marketing, Kriya FMCG Distributors and Kaiser Surya Samudra Resorts—have all hit the headlines in recent months.
Karti’s CV is impressive: after schooling at Don Bosco in Chennai, he acquired a BBA from the University of Texas and read law at Cambridge. But unlike his mother Nalini Chidambaram, who has a flourishing practice, or his father, who practises when the Congress is out of power, Karti is no lawyer. It wouldn’t be incorrect to say that at heart he’s a tennis enthusiast (he has also interests in bowling and karate).
Karti has played competitive tennis in the Indian circuit as a junior, and college tennis in America and in England. Talking to Tennis India magazine in January this year—he kept a low profile during the Chennai Open as the TN government is one of its main sponsors—Karti admitted, “My primary ambition in life was to be a professional tennis player.”
His personal life is uncontroversial. He is married to Srinidhi—a well-known dancer and doctor—and has a daughter, 11-year-old Aditi. Minnie says, “Like all young couples who are high achievers, he and Srinidhi do not live in each other’s pockets and understand the demands of their individual careers. But they ensure they spend quality time together.” Srinidhi works as a consultant in the epidemiology, health communications and international patient services department at Apollo Hospital.
The family is, not surprisingly, on vacation currently. When Karti was very young, Nalini Chidambaram used to read out to him from English newspapers so as to explain politics to him. The wheel has turned. It would certainly not please Karti to be the subject of headline puns. Not with the family name bearing the brunt of those editorial efforts.
By Pushpa Iyengar with Arindam Mukherjee and Lola Nayar