A long time ago, when Karti Chidambaram was just eight or nine, his father P Chidambaram, already a lawyer with a flourishing practice in Madras, moved his office out of his home to another building down the road. Telephones worked only sporadically and frequently clients landed up at home only to find he wasn’t there. The senior Chidambaram hired Karti’s services as a guide: ‘for every client you redirect to my office, you will get Rs 1,’ he was told. Karti took to business like a fish to water. If a client looked as if he was going to drive past, he would be waylaid: ‘I will escort you’, Karti would say importantly to the puzzled visitor and pick up the 1 Re.
Karti inherited business in his genes. The Chettiars are an important trading caste in Tamil Nadu, but also highly educated and well traveled. Karti’s ancestors went as far afield as Myanmar, Malaysia, and Singapore to do business. They didn’t just learn business, they also learnt philanthropy, public service, leadership and a system of values in business. Tamil Nadu is dotted with choultries (as dharamshalas are called), hospitals, schools, stadia and other public facilities built by community contributions on land donated by Chettiar families. In fact, when Karti was getting married, the dates for his marriage had to juggled because a marriage hall was available only on a few dates, ‘even though it is owned by our family’, his father confessed with a wry laugh.
Karti was a precious only child, born to privilege, something he readily accepts. “Life was very easy and comfortable growing up. It continues to be so”, he says.You can only envy him his upbringing. And many do.
He went to Don Bosco School, Egmore, the school run by the Salesians of Don Bosco, which has produced a varied cast of characters: film personalities YG Mahendra and actor Venkatesh, tennis champions Vijay Amritraj and Anand Amritraj, chess wizard Viswanathan Anand and Union Minister Dayanidhi Maran. The Class of 1989, the year Karti finished school, has instituted a scholarship of Rs 15,000 accruing annually from interest on a fixed deposit to a deserving student of class XII.
It is in school that Karti got interested in sport, debating and elocution. Tennis became and continues to be an abiding passion. He wanted to become a professional tennis player. “Tennis was my primary dream and ambition. If I could rewrite my life, I would give up everything to become a tennis player of great repute,” he says. As soon as his daughter, Aditi Nalini (named after his mother) was born and “was wheeled out I made her touch a can of Slazenger Wimbledon Tennis balls”, he says in the superstitious hope that the first tactile contact would inspire her to become a tennis player. “But alas she is not interested in tennis” he says, about Aditi at nine.
Start Karti on tennis and the problems in India and he won’t stop. “One of the primary drawbacks I find in India is that we don't have great coaches. We have coaches who can look after the player upto the age of 16 but we lack coaches to convert a 16-year-old into a professional in 5 years and make the player playing in professional circuit. So that is why we at least in the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association (TNTA) have been sending out players constantly to Spain and Germany to train and all the players are being given wild cards in the circuits there. They have been sent to Sanchez-Casal academy in Spain and Waske Schuttler Tennis Academy in Germany. We need to definitely develop a core brand of coaches who can convert a good junior into a professional player. Tennis has changed dramatically, the physical mental aspects of tennis have changed a lot” he says.
He feels India needs to look at tennis differently “There are not enough tournaments in India at the ITF 10K and 15K Challenger levels. So you have to go out of India to play these tournaments. If players can play here, they will gain the basic ITF points in India and then they can go out: this has been proven in the case of Jeevan Neduncheziyan. We had 4 tournaments and he won 2 tournaments and he got some points and he is already in top 500 in the world. In a country like Spain, you can play a professional tournament every week. We need to have a minimum of 25 to 30 tournaments in India at the ITF 10K, 15K and 50K level and that would definitely help to change the equation. We are trying, but it is not easy to find sponsorships for tennis. Cricket takes up a disproportionate share of resources”.
After school he went to Austin, Texas, to study business management and then to Cambridge to read law. “I particularly enjoyed Cambridge. The tutorial style of teaching in Cambridge was fabulous. It is a very picturesque town. The college system was very congenial” And Wimbledon ? ‘Well, of course, Wimbledon, too” he quips.
When Karti was 2 or three years old, he had his first contact with politics. His mother would read the newspapers out to him. “By the time I was 13 or 14, I was clear that I wanted to be in public life” he said. Many of his friends stayed on in Europe or the US.“I could have stayed back for few more years too. But my future is in India. Particularly taking into account my public ambitions.”
When he returned in 1995-1996, he landed in the eye of a political storm in India. Angered that the Congress – led by PV Narasimha Rao at the time – opted to ally with Jayalalithaa and the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK). P Chidambaram along with GK Moopanar, broke away from the Congress. The Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) suddenly became a game-changer, not just in the politics of Tamil Nadu but also at the national level. The TMC constitution “was born in our house, 16, Pycrofts Road. I got the computers organised from my uncle’s offices; I remember rushing the cycle symbol off to the election commissioner TN Seshan, in Delhi.”
At around this time, Karti happened to visit his aunt and spotted a young woman coming out of a neighbouring house. She took his breath away. Srinidhi, a doctor and a well-known Bharatanatyam dancer and Karti were married months later. They are both independent, strong personalities who have made a pact not to breathe down each other’s necks.
The Tamil Maanila Congress split in 2001 soon after GK Moopanar died. Chidambaram launched his own political outfit, only to merge it into the Congress later. But Karti Chidambaram saw the middle class uprising against the two Dravidian behemoths and the power a small change in political formations could unleash. “My principle ambition politically is to make the Congress a potent political force in Tamilnadu. I believe state governments impact people’s lives a lot more than central policies and fiats. But for the Congress to be significantly relevant in Tamil Nadu we need to do a lot more. To compete with the two Dravidian behemoths we must strategise and act very differently. In a way TN is the last and most difficult bastion for the Congress”, he says.
To try and bring about change and become the change, he worked hard at becoming the president of the Youth Congress in Tamil Nadu. But age beat him to it. By the time the party put the system of elections to front organizations, he was too old to contest. “Not getting appointed as Youth Congress President of TN was very disappointing.”
Karti then did the next best thing: he tried to teach himself scientifically, the art of election management. He became his father’s election manager in Sivaganga. This made him the focus of all eyes. Rumours swirled and acquired a life all their own, as they are prone to do. Karti did not flinch from answering any questions, either about the facts or the rumours about him (see interview). What makes him really angry is the instant verdict people pass about him. “People are very judgmental about me. They have an opinion because of my last name. The negativity about those in public life, in particular the accusatory muck throwing nature of politics disappoints me. India is not an egalitarian society or country. I lead a very privileged life. I am duty bound to give back. Why doesn’t anyone understand this motivation ?” he asks.
So, about that last name: his relationship with his father. His answer is brief. “My father is a perfectionist and measures others by his standards of excellence. That's tough to match up.”