Nonchalance has remained the hallmark of Karti Chidambaram, the only son of former Union finance minister P. Chidambaram. The 45-year-old businessman-politician could always afford to be so, having grown up amidst wealth, political power and even readily available legal advice (his parents are top lawyers). “What do you think they can do? Nothing will come of that! All this is just empty posturing.” These are some of Karti’s favourite responses when confronted with a tricky situation.
Like, when the CBI knocked on the doors of his family’s Chennai residence on May 16. He has been booked for corruption and conspiracy to help INX Media get an FIPB clearance circumventing foreign equity limits in a media company. (Indrani and Peter Mukherjea, who floated INX in 2007, later became accused in the case on the 2012 murder of Sheena Bora murder.) In its FIR, the CBI alleges that Chidambaram as finance minister allowed the Mukherjeas to get foreign investment of Rs 305 crore although the Foreign Investment Promotion Board had sanctioned only Rs 4 crore. The probe agency further claims that Karti, in return, got kickbacks of over Rs 3 crore through the companies linked directly and indirectly to him.
Karti, with characteristic insouciance, brushes away the raids at his home in downtown Nungambakkam as act two of the Narendra Modi government’s drama to fix him and, through him, his father for financial impropriety in his business dealings. Every time a question is raised (invariably by BJP leader Subramanian Swamy) or an investigation is opened or raid conducted, Karti and Chidambaram have defended themselves with the standard format: all the business dealings have the RBI’s approval and are compliant with the laws.
The duo has supporters. “If there is really some wrongdoing, why hasn’t the ED (enforcement directorate) taken the logical step of chargesheeting Karti or any of his business associates even two years after the first raid,” asks former Chennai mayor Karate R. Thiagarajan, a close Chidambaram associate. “Whether it is I-T (income tax) or ED, their probe appears stuck on second gear.”
Chidambaram feels he has irked the Modi regime with his weekly newspaper columns that picked holes in the NDA’s claims of development, governance and growth. And that his successor in the present cabinet, Arun Jaitley, has unleashed the power of the governmental agencies to silence him through periodical raids on his son’s business.
Columnist S. Gurumurthy isn’t amused. “Chidambaram can wallow in all the self-importance at his command about his pearls of wisdom, but the fact remains that both father and son were involved in dubious deals during his tenure as the finance minister,” he says. “It is only a matter of time before the entire picture of their wrongdoings emerges,” adds the Swadeshi Jagran Manch functionary, pointing out how Karti-controlled Advantage Strategic Consulting Pvt Ltd keeps cropping up in various deals—Aircel-Maxis, Vasan Eye Care, INX Media and various overseas investments. “If what I have written or Dr Swamy has exposed is not true, why haven’t they dared to sue us for defamation?”
While Chidambaram, as a seasoned lawyer, knows the power of silence when it comes to refuting allegations, Karti has been trigger-happy. In October 2012, when someone tweeted that Karti’s corruption was bigger than Congress chief Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra’s, the junior Chidambaram filed a complaint against the little-known businessman from Puducherry. The man, Ravi Srinivasan, was even arrested under the infamous section 66A of the IT Act, thanks to a friendly government in the union territory. “The choice and timing of filing a complaint are mine. I need not react the same way my father does,” Karti had retorted when pointed out that PC had brushed aside bigger pinpricks from his political opponents.
Even though the Congress has got downgraded after every election in Tamil Nadu, Karti and PC have managed to remain the state’s most famous political father-son pair after the DMK duo of M. Karunanidhi and M.K. Stalin. Chidambaram’s national image has kept them in the limelight even if the local Congressmen do not look up to them for leadership. “In Chidambaram, the Tamil Nadu Congress has a deputy prime minister candidate and not a chief minister-in-waiting,” jokes a former Congress MLA, pointing to a disconnect between the party cadres and the high-profile pair.
Chidambaram, after the narrowest win of his political career in 2009, vacated Sivaganga Lok Sabha seat for Karti, who finished a distant fourth and lost deposit. Yet the son took pride as only the second Congress candidate in the state to get more than a lakh votes (out of the ten lakh cast in the constituency). “Even though Chidambaram had won the seat seven times since 1984, if this is the kind of performance from the son, it only shows how popular the family is and how little Chidambaram has done for his people,” observes BJP leader H. Raja, who finished third ahead of Karti in the 2014 LS poll.
PC did take an electoral sanyas, but that was short-lived as he nudged into the Rajya Sabha after sensing the need for his presence in Parliament to remain in political contention. “It is easier to catch Rahul Gandhi’s eye in Parliament than wait for days for an appointment with the scion,” quips a Congress functionary, referring to the party’s vice-president. “Also, you get reported in the media if you make the right intervention in Parliament. Of course, PC got upset that he was not allowed to open the debate on demonetisation as an ex-finance minister. It only proves that even a sharp brain has to toe Rahul’s illogical decisions.”
Karti, meanwhile, has been attempting to reinvent the Congress as a party that measured up to the aspirations of present-day voters. “The slogan of bringing back Kamaraj rule is outdated as the present lot of voters do not even know who MGR is, leave alone Kamaraj,” the Jr Chidambaram had said, referring to late chief ministers M.G. Ramachandran and K. Kamaraj. “After 1967, when it had lost power to the DMK, the Congress has found itself in a time warp. By riding with the DMK or the AIADMK it had reduced itself to a small time ally and it needs a new face, a fresh identity and a catchy slogan to re-emerge as a political force,” he had proposed—like a copywriter—at a meeting of a ginger group of his supporters called G-67, implying the post-1967 generation.
The group has so far met only twice and has come up with only two proposals: campaigns against liquor and cash for votes. Karti even suggested that G-67 volunteers should campaign against voters taking money during the RK Nagar byelection. Ironically, the money flow was so heavy that the poll itself got cancelled. “How can Karti propagate clean politics when there is a strong whiff of corruption and kickbacks hanging around him,” wonders a Congress ex-MP. “If he is serious about winning a fair election, he should pick one assembly constituency, work on its problems, find solutions and then seek votes. He is simply not cut out for the rough and tumble of electoral politics for which he has to carry the cadres with him. If only Karti had inherited his father’s intelligence and not his arrogance, he could be better placed to lead the Congress in Tamil Nadu.”
By G.C. Shekhar in Chennai