Why would people want to know about me,” he asks brusquely, as he settles down in his small, cluttered office situated in a commercial complex in a prominent locality in Chennai.
Clad in a white veshti and shirt (much like his father’s trademark attire), the tall and bespectacled Karti P. Chidambaram — the only son of home minister, P. Chidambaram, and a recognisable face in the city’s status-conscious society — must know the answer to that rhetorical question.
A couple of weeks ago, Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy said he was a beneficiary in the 2G scam, triggering a hot denial from his father in Parliament.
“Don’t expect me to talk about the allegations made by Subramanian Swamy. I’ve already issued a press statement denying his charge and sent him a legal notice,” Karti had said categorically on the telephone before granting the interview.
Now, visibly more relaxed, he shares the legal notice sent to Swamy questioning the “baseless, false and malicious” allegations. The notice demands that Swamy withdraw the allegations made by him and tender an apology.
The dust is yet to settle completely on this sticky issue. Yet, Karti, 41, does not seem unduly disturbed. This BBA graduate from the University of Texas and a student of law from the University of Cambridge, comes across as articulate and friendly — and fends questions with ease.
Not keen to be part of the national political scene in New Delhi, Karti makes it clear that he wants to be in state politics and aspires to strengthen the Congress in Tamil Nadu. What riles him is the charge that he is a political non-entity in the state.
“I don’t agree. I am very active in state party politics. You cannot believe the English press which is disconnected from rural India,” he says defensively, pointing that he has just returned from travelling in the districts for 10 days.
He does not take offence when questioned about being a part of the jet-setting Page 3 crowd in Chennai and says lightly, “Don’t put me on Page 3 — I want to be on Page 1.”
As chairman of the prestigious annual international tennis tournament, the Chennai Open, Karti is a fixture at all the parties held off the court. “Tennis is my biggest passion and has probably played a big part in my life,” he stresses.
In tennis, clearly, he has carved out his own role — as the vice-president of the All India Tennis Association and the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association. In politics, however, he is merely seen as his father’s son.
These are charges that get his goat. “How can people say I am not active in politics,” he rants. “I am going to talk shortly at a public meeting in Karaikudi on the importance of the right to education,” he adds.
Karti, who is a member of the All India Congress Committee (AICC), starts to list his political work. “I help my father substantially in managing his constituency, Sivaganga, but I also travel extensively. I speak at Congress party meetings, campaign and articulate the party stand on issues. I’ve also been active in the enrollment drive of the Youth Congress and will be active in the election for the new Youth Congress wing in another two months.”
Then why does he not seek a bigger role in state politics? “My time might come in the future. My political age is still that of an adolescent. Leadership cannot be foisted on anyone.”
Circumstance, issues and environment play a part in someone being catapulted as a leader, he says, citing the example of chief minister J. Jayalalithaa, who was accepted as M.G. Ramachandran’s heir after his death.
“Why does someone become relevant at a point in politics? There was a time when Vaiko was highly relevant in Tamil Nadu politics but he is not so relevant anymore. You cannot explain these things so easily,” he says.
What’s easier to explain is Karti’s interest in politics. When he was a child, his lawyer mother, Nalini Chidambaram, used to read the newspaper out to him to make him aware of the world around him. “I was reading newspapers by the time I was in Class III and knew about world politics at a young age. I also knew I wanted to be a politician when I was 14,” he says.
Karti was then in school, leading what he calls a “privileged life”. He played tennis seriously, but adds that he did reasonably well in school too. “My parents never put any pressure on me. They were easy on me as a child.”
His senior in Don Bosco School was the chess champ, Vishwanathan Anand. “I know Anand very well. He also married my friend’s sister. He has a great sense of humour and is a fun-loving, easy-going chap,” he says.
Karti grew up in a politically-charged environment. “All the state leaders would troop in and out of my house,” he recalls. However, shortly after his return from Cambridge, Karti remembers being caught in the thick of an intense political drama with the birth of the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC).
In 1996, his father along with G.K. Moopanar broke away from the Congress to protest against the party’s alliance with the AIADMK. “This was an epoch-making time in Tamil Nadu politics. There was such a wave of hope. Middle-class people were lining up to be part of the TMC,” he recalls excitedly.
The TMC constitution, he adds, was typed in his house. “It was born in our house, 16, Pycrofts Road — nobody can deny that. I got the computers organised from my uncle’s offices; I remember rushing the cycle symbol off to the election commissioner, Mr T.N. Seshan, in Delhi.”
The mood at that time was one of “tremendous anger” against Delhi for foisting an alliance against the will of the cadre, he recalls. “In Bengal, Mamata Banerjee had started the Trinamul Congress at the same time. Her party was also called the TMC. Today, look where she is and look where we are,” he says.
So what went wrong? “The Tamil Maanila Congress split in 2001. G.K. Moopanar passed away that year in August. Circumstances and lack of leadership made it unviable,” he replies. A disenchanted Chidambaram had broken away from his mentor Moopanar and formed his own party — the Congress Democratic Front — which later merged with the Congress.
Karti, who started an online public debate forum with DMK MP Kanimozhi (which is still active), might silently rue that he belongs to a party which has not been in power in the state since 1967. On what makes the Congress a weak force in the state, he points out that Tamil Nadu has had just four chief ministers in the last 40 years — C.N. Annadurai, K. Karunanidhi, M.G. Ramachandran and J. Jayalalithaa.
The state, he stresses, requires strong, charismatic leaders not necessarily from cinema. “The state Congress has not been able to throw up a leader of that stature for 40 years. To compete against a Dravidian party we need to rally behind a leader who can match the leadership and charisma of the Dravidian party or else we will be playing second fiddle forever,” he states.
Karti also believes that the Congress is far too silent in Tamil Nadu. “They should be more articulate about what they stand for or oppose. There are a lot of things we have done but Dravidian parties are good at articulating and they take up positions. We need to speak up more,” he says.
He brushes aside questions on the discontent against the Congress at the Centre as an anti-establishment wave that can be found all over the world. “The Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party movements are all a part of the general cynicism that has crept into the middle class. The outpouring of their angst is also exaggerated by TV and the social media. This anti-government mood is not targeted at the Congress alone. I travel to the villages, I don’t see any great anger against the Congress. People just want a better life and want the government to deliver it for them,” he says.
A fan of the former Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, Karti believes that business is the great engine for growth. Government must make it easy for people to start business and employ people. “Lee Kuan Yee was a great transformational leader, who changed a small country into a global financial powerhouse.”
Business is of interest to Karti for he runs a management and a logistics company. “They are doing well and I am fully involved in their operations,” he says. His wife, Srinidhi, is a doctor, and they have a school-going daughter.
Karti adds that he is a deeply religious man (there is a Sai Baba statue in his office room). And he points out that he is a generalist, while his father is a “master of detail”.
But Karti shares his father’s oratorical skills. “I was a natural in school,” he says, adding that he won the first Talk Your Way to Singapore contest in Chennai. Though the “father’s son” tag refuses to go, Karti hastens to add that he cut his teeth in politics as a child.
He was six when he climbed an election podium and recited a poem penned by his grandmother. The poem was on the goodness of a cow and her calf in a south Indian home. And the animals, of course, were the election symbol on which his politician father was contesting from Karaikudi. “People don’t realise how early I started in politics,” his says. He is his father’s son, no doubt. But Karti would like to believe that he is his own man too.