The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) arrested Karti Chidambaram from Chennai airport on Wednesday morning as he landed from England. Before signing it, the 46-year-old son of senior Congress leader and former finance minister P Chidambaram wrote in his arrest memo: “This whole exercise is to politically target my father.”
Karti, and his father, have faced allegations of corruption for nearly a decade, mostly from Bharatiya Janata Party Rajya Sabha member Subramanian Swamy. It was no surprise when Swamy characteristically tweeted on Wednesday that Chidambaram senior should also be arrested.
There was also little surprise in what Karti wrote in his arrest memo. Karti is convinced he is collateral damage in the political fight between the Narendra Modi government and his father.
The only real surprise, if at all, was that it took the CBI nearly four years of the Modi government to lay their hands on Karti. Along with Robert Vadra, the brother-in-law of Congress chief Rahul Gandhi, alleged corruption by Karti, was the leitmotif of Modi’s 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign.
If P Chidambaram has felt in the last four years that the party hasn’t backed him sufficiently in his hour of need, a sentiment that Congress sources say he shares with former prime minister Manmohan Singh, who has endured his share of court appearances, the Congress on Wednesday made amends.
The Press Trust of India news alert on Karti’s arrest was flashed at 9.38 am. At 9.48 am, Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala tweeted accusing the Modi government of employing “diversionary tactic to hide scams and colossal corruption” in the Punjab National Bank fraud case. “Modi government continues its vendetta against P Chidambaram. This won’t deter the Congress from bringing the truth to the people,” Surjewala said. ALSO READ: INX Media case: Karti to spend Holi in jail, sent to 5-day CBI custody
At 1.38 pm, a Congress press statement said the Congress chief had appointed Chidambaram chairman of the sub-group on economic affairs for the party’s upcoming plenary session.
Neither was the arrest a surprise to Karti or his father. During a hearing in the Supreme Court on his bail applications before a bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra on February 23, Karti’s counsel Kapil Sibal had wondered whether the CBI was planning to arrest his client. CBI’s counsel Tushar Mehta had replied: “I am not saying that he will be arrested” but the call has to be taken by the investigating agency.
Karti has been arrested in connection with a CBI First Information Report (FIR) of May 15, 2017, that had alleged irregularities in the FIPB (Foreign Investment Promotion Board) clearance to INX Media for receiving overseas funds to the tune of Rs 3 billion in 2007 when Chidambaram was the finance minister. It alleged that Karti for his services received nearly Rs 1 million in the case.
Karti is also being investigated by the Enforcement Directorate in a related money laundering case.
Karti is no stranger to controversies, and has run into trouble in the past because of his public statements. In January 2015, he was show-caused by the Tamil Nadu unit of the Congress party for apparently disrespecting legendary party leader K Kamaraj and lauding Modi.
His colleagues in the Tamil Nadu Congress say Karti has had big shoes to fill. His paternal great-grandfather was the Rajah of Chettinad and one of the founders of Indian Bank. Former BCCI chief AC Muthiah, a noted industrialist, is also related.
Then obviously, there is his father. While Karti followed in the footsteps of his father and studied overseas — studying Business Administration in Austin, Texas, and completing post-graduation at Cambridge — he hasn’t quite had the same success as his father either in his profession or politics.
Those who know him attribute this to Karti’s inability to grapple with the opaque quality of negotiation that is at the heart of Indian politics, and his straight talk is often mistaken to be the abrasiveness of a silver-spooned son of an influential father and an illustrious family.
While Karti blames political vendetta for his present troubles, the stature that Chidambaram senior has among the political class hasn’t always been a bane for the son. Even now, there are those in the government who are convinced that there is very little direct evidence that the CBI has against Karti.
In May 2012, the Rajya Sabha had an interesting debate. Arun Jaitley, then the Leader of the Opposition in the House, had led an opposition charge alleging impropriety by the finance ministry under Chidambaram in 2006 to benefit his son Karti over the Aircel-Maxis deal.
Chidambaram replied he was “happy” that his friend of 22-years had raised the question. But as Jaitley continued to grill Chidambaram, the Congress leader said: “(I don’t) want to reveal private conversations but I still maintain that it would be much simpler if somebody took a dagger and plunged it into my heart rather than question my integrity.”
In the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Karti was one of the spokespersons for the Congress. Karti also contested the Lok Sabha seat from his father’s Sivaganga seat after his father had announced that he wouldn’t fight the election. He got 10.19 per cent of the votes polled, and was fourth after the AIADMK, DMK and BJP candidates.