Until last year, those who followed his fortunes were used to seeing him in a sharp suit and shades, waving to the crowds as he emerged from court proceedings. But this Lok Sabha election, the man exchanged his suit for a white shirt and dhoti, remaking himself in the image of his party and his father.
He is Karti Chidambaram, the son of Congress leader P Chidambaram, whose legacy is at stake.
In photo-ops leading up to the April 18 elections in Sivagangai, the Tamil Nadu district from where he contested, Chidambaram appeared serene and confident. It is true that his hopes of winning the election rest on Congress’ alliance with the DMK–the man himself admitted as much to ANI–thanks to the maelstrom of scandals that surrounds him. Chidambaram however remains a supremely self-possessed individual.
It has always been so. According to Mohanan Rajesh, a close friend since their Don Bosco days in Chennai, Chidambaram declared to his 6th standard class that he would be the leader when they reached Class 12. Six years later, his prophecy came true. Arul Pethiah, a senior member of the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee who has observed the Sivagangai candidate from close quarters, reinforces the idea of a supremely self-assured individual. “He has done this since school,” he says. As a 6-year-old, reveals Pethiah, Chidambaram gave speeches at his father’s rallies, bringing with him the easy charisma that all natural leaders possess.
For his friends and Congress members, the scandals are the multiple elephants in the room but they believe his laid-back attitude makes confident enough to contest elections despite the whirlwind of raids and court appearances.
“All these allegations against him are politically motivated. He is very cool about it. I think this has shown him who his true friends are,” says Rajesh.
Chidambaram is allegedly involved in the Aircel-Maxis and Sequoia Capital cases. Articles published in September and October 2015 by The New Indian Express revealed that he secretly owned or co-owned, with his father, an international network of companies.
Another investigation by The Pioneer in 2016 claimed that Karti Chidambaram was involved in extensive international business activities. Allegations flew thick and fast that he had conducted most of these from 2006 to 2014, during which time his father held the Home (2008-12) and Finance (2004-2008; 2012-14) portfolios.
Legal tangles began soon after the UPA government was voted out of power in 2014. First, the Income Tax department and the ED raided his offices. In 2016, Chidambaram skipped a summons related to the Aircel-Maxis probe by the ED, earning him the ire of the government as well as the public. A year later, the Bureau of Immigration issued a ‘Look Out Circular’ (LOC) against Chidambaram, which was stayed by the Madras High Court. Shortly after, he appeared before the CBI in connection to a case involving FIPB approval of INX Media. In 2018 Chidambaram was arrested in a money laundering case and spent three days in Tihar before being released on bail. He finally set his foot at the ED office to record a statement in 2019.
According to Chidambaram, his business dealings are far removed from his political career. “I don’t think anybody can be a full-time politician. It is essential to have a full-time career. Politics should not be seen as a medium to earn a fortune,” he said in an interview with Livemint. Be that as it may, having an established family name and substantial financial resources certainly doesn’t hurt. “No one can be a full time politician unless they have huge personal wealth as a legacy inheritance,” says Rajesh. But the irony is lost on him.
Congress party workers in Sivagangai are steadfastly loyal despite the flurry of cases against their man. “We are convinced that none of these cases define our Karti sir. He is actually a pretty relaxed, kind and calm person. He will not lose like last time,” says Ganesh, one of the few party workers who was willing to talk about Chidambaram. “They [the other workers] are probably scared that the press will twist their words and write something against him again,” he said curtly. Amongst the many roles that Chidambaram has to perform for the public, playing the good son paying homage to his father’s accomplishments is the most important. If one is the progeny of a famed politician, voters almost always bank on “family values” over any concrete policies or proposed solutions to local issues that they may bring to the table.
“Karti has never done wrong by his father. It is all a political conspiracy,” says Pethiah. His father agrees, calling it a vendetta by the current government. However, the natural progression of Karti taking over from his father in the backdrop of an extremely unpredictable election for both parties did not go down well within the Congress either. Sudarshana Natchiappan, former Union minister who was in the running for the Sivagangai seat, was furious with Chidambaram, saying, “Has the Congress not been able to find a good candidate in the entire country? Is Mr Karti a freedom fighter?” Natchiappan made up with him soon after though, calling him his “loveable” brother.
As far as policy goes, “I think he can solve the water problems in our state,” says Ganesh. But more curious to the locals is his idea of converting Sivagangai’s old Chettiar houses into heritage sites that will attract tourists and provide a boost to the local economy. “I mean, Karti sir knows we have other issues, but maybe this will bring us some revenue,” he says.
The campaigning is over and the votes have been cast. The only thing left to do now is await the results on May 23 and reflect on a tumultuous few months. Could Karti Chidambaram have done anything better? Rajesh responds, “He could have cultivated the press a little better like most politicians do. You know what I mean.”
Divya Karthikeyan is a Chennai-based journalist
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