As the son of a successful lawyer and politician, Karti Chidambaram has had a life of privilege, but it has also laid him open to political muckrakers, he tells Aditi Phadnis
A long time ago, when Karti Chidambaram was eight or nine, his father P Chidambaram, already a lawyer with a flourishing practice in Madras, moved his office out of his home to a 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 the business like 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 to the puzzled visitor and pick up the Rs 1.
Karti has business in his genes. The Chettiars are a trading caste in Tamil Nadu. Karti’s ancestors went as far afield as Myanmar, Malaysia and Singapore to do business. They also learnt philanthropy, public service, leadership and business values. Tamil Nadu is dotted with choultries (as dharamshalas are called), hospitals, schools, stadia and other public facilities built on land donated by Chettiar families. In fact, when Karti was getting married, the wedding dates had to be juggled because the hall was available only on a few dates, “even though it is owned by our family”, his father confesses with a wry laugh.
Karti was an 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 envy him his upbringing, and many do.
He went to Don Bosco School, Egmore, a school run by Salesians, which has produced film personalities Y G Mahendra and actor Venkatesh, tennis champions Vijay and Anand Amritraj, chess wizard Viswanathan Anand and Union Minister Dayanidhi Maran.
It is in school that Karti became interested in sports, debating and elocution. Tennis became and continues to be an abiding passion. He wanted to become a professional tennis player. “Tennis was my primary ambition. If I could rewrite my life, I would give up everything to become a tennis player of great repute,” he says. When his daughter Aditi Nalini (named after his mother) was wheeled out after her birth, “I made her touch a can of Slazenger Wimbledon Tennis balls” he says in the superstitious hope that that first touch would inspire her to become a tennis player. “But alas she is not interested in tennis,” he says, about Aditi at nine.
Later, Karti went to Austin, Texas, to study business management and then to Cambridge to read law. “I particularly enjoyed Cambridge.” And Wimbledon? “Well, of course, Wimbledon too,” he says.
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Karti had his first contact with politics when he was two or three years old. 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 says. Many of his friends stayed on in Europe or the US. “I could have stayed back for a few years too. But my future is in India, taking into account my public ambitions.”
Karti returned in 1995-1996 in the eye of a political storm. Angered that the Congress — led by P V Narasimha Rao at the time — had opted to ally with J Jayalalithaa, P Chidambaram and G K Moopanar broke away to form the Tamil Maanila Congress. The TMC became a game-changer, not just in state politics but also at the national level. The TMC “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 election commissioner T N 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 well-known Bharatanatyam dancer, and Karti married a few months later.
The TMC split in 2001 soon after Moopanar died. Chidambaram launched his own political outfit, but merged it with the Congress later. But Karti Chidambaram saw the middle class rising up against the two Dravidian behemoths and how powerful a small change in political formations could be. “My principle ambition politically is to make the Congress a potent political force in Tamil Nadu. But to compete with the two Dravidian behemoths we must strategise and act very differently,” he says.
To this end, he tried hard to become president of the Youth Congress in Tamil Nadu. But by the time the party put in place the system of elections to front organisations, he was too old to contest. “Not getting appointed as Youth Congress President of Tamil Nadu was very disappointing,” he says.
Karti then did the next best thing: he became his father’s election manager in Sivaganga. This made him the focus of all eyes. Rumours swirled. Karti did not flinch from answering questions, either about the facts or the rumours about him (see interview). But what makes him angry is how people pass snap verdicts about him. “People are very judgmental. They have an opinion because of my last name. The negativity about those in public life disappoints me. 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.”
There are charges that you dabbled in the stock market during your father's earlier stint as finance minister.
How do you earn a living?
What was your role in your father’s election, which, his opponents say, he actually lost?
You are at the centre of a controversy on Twitter. You made use of a section in the law that has sent a man to jail.
I did the legally right thing. I lodged a written complaint. I didn’t send goons to his house. I didn’t abuse him. There are many cases worldwide, including India, where the law has taken tweeters to task. I am not responsible for section 66. Others have relied on this section too.