A decade ago Karti Chidambaram was the face of the new cosmopolitan Chennai or Chentucky Fried as Outlook magazine dubbed it. The son of the home minister, a BBA grad from the University of Texas with a law degree from the University of Cambridge, Karti was the poster boy for the changing city – strong family pedigree but not insular, as comfortable in his white veshti and shirt as he was on the tennis court, media-savvy and media-friendly, one half of a high-profile yuppie couple, his wife being a well-known dancer and a doctor.
“People in Chennai always had the potential to spend but didn’t have many options,” Karti, at that time the director of Kiwi Sports (P) Ltd, told Outlook, about how Chennai was embracing change. “Give them value for money and they are willing to bite the bait.”
The eye of the storm
These days Karti probably will not make any statements like this anymore. They don’t sit well with someone accused by Subramanian Swamy of being the beneficiary in the 2G scam in the Aircel-Maxis deal. Karti has sent a legal notice to Swamy accusing him of making “baseless, false and malicious” allegations. (A Firstpost analysis concluded that the Chidu-Karti-Maxis dotted line is very faint.) But with the Madras High Court striking out only two out of 25 paragraphs in an affidavit against his father about his election, Karti’s days in the eye of the storm are far from over. One of the paragraphs that remain specifically points the finger at Karti – it alleges that thousands of women belonging to self-help groups in his father’s constituency were paid Rs 500 each by Karti and his election agents to help manipulate the votes. In 2009 Karti made it into Wikileaks which said he denied ever paying cash for votes not because he had “any moral objection” but “because it’s impossible to distribute the money effectively when villages are spread so far apart.”
Suddenly everyone outside Tamil Nadu is asking who is Karti Chidambaram? Or more to the point, does Karti Chidambaram matter?
In Chennai, sycophants had once put up posters calling him the “Rahul Gandhi of Tamil politics” during his birthday celebrations in 2008. Those were the days when Rahul Gandhi was still the great hope of Congress. Now do both Karti and Rahul share a less attractive commonality – much ado about nothing?
As an Economic Times profile pointed out, “At his age his father was already in his second year as member of parliament. Now, while the sons of his father's peers (those like Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot) are already part of the Union ministry, Karti hasn't even taken the full political plunge.” Karti has no constituency of his own, gaining a reputation instead as a dabbler of many trades, master of none. According to a recent profile in Outlook, “(d)epending 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’.”
The many hats of Karti Chidambaram
He runs a legal consulting firm called Chess Management Services but does not practise as a lawyer. He started a public opinion forum with Kanimozhi with great fanfare that has understandably kept a low profile lately. He has a website and tweets regularly. He inherited a large coffee and pepper estate in Coorg. His business dealings are low-key. ET uncovered a list of companies owned (currently or at one time) by Karti or his family members. They include Ausbridge Holdings, Kaiser Luxury Hotels, Advantage Strategic Consulting (the firm fingered by Swamy in the 2G scam ), Halidon Marketing etc. (Read the full list here). The Outlook profile of Karti the businessman sums him up tellingly as “a man who has his hand in many things, but plays from the fringes”.
He is the chief patron of the All India Karate Do Federation and heads the Tenpin Bowling Federation of India. He is the vice-president of the All India Tennis Association and the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association. “Tennis is my biggest passion and has probably played a big part in my life,” he told the Telegraph.
Odd words from a member of the AICC who apparently nurtures political ambitions. “My time might come in the future,” he said. “My political age is still that of an adolescent.”
Karti is now 41.