Karti Chidambaram. Photo: HT
Karti Chidambaram. Photo: HT

The Pioneer: The unlikely crusader

The Pioneer is leading the charge on reporting allegedly questionable involvement of P. Chidambaram's son Karti Chidambaram in the Aircel-Maxis deal

New Delhi: Back in 2010, it was The Pioneer, the Delhi-based newspaper, which broke the scandal on the scam associated with the sale of 2G telecom spectrum. Six years later, this paper seems to be at it again: this time, it is leading the charge on reporting allegedly questionable involvement of former finance minister P. Chidambaram’s son Karti Chidambaram in the Aircel-Maxis deal.

Its first bit of investigative reporting eventually turned out to be the Achilles heel of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). It eventually contributed significantly to their electoral decimation in the 16th general election. Like in 2010, this time too, the reporter leading the charge is J. Gopikrishnan, winner of the prestigious Ramnath Goenka Journalist of the Year award in 2009-2010.

“The Aircel-Maxis case, I started working on in 2010. It was Subramanium Swamy who initiated it. What is happening in the Parliament today is nothing. These are just talks. This case started happening after Swamy approached the court," Gopikrishnan said.

The Aircel-Maxis case is tied to allegations that then telecom minister Dayanidhi Maran forced Aircel owner C. Sivasankaran to transfer his ownership to Maxis in 2006. The Malaysian company invested in Kalanithi Maran’s Sun Direct, the direct-to-home TV arm of his Sun TV Network Ltd. There are allegations that Karti Chidambaram was involved in the multi-crore corruption scandal.

In this instance though, Gopikrishnan believes the political damage will accrue not so much to the Congress, but to Chidambaram.

“This case has nothing to do with the Congress," he said.

In December, officials of the income-tax department and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) raided the premises of some business associates of Karti Chidambaram, as part of a larger probe into suspected irregularities in Aircel Ltd’s 2006 sale to Maxis Communications Bhd. P. Chidambaram then put out a statement saying: “As can be expected, nothing was found in the fishing and roving enquiry. I would like to see how far a foolish govt will go in harassing him. I still believe that the department I left behind have many officers who will act according to their conscience."

According to a news report by Press Trust of India, in response to the CBI chargesheet regarding his decision in the Aircel-Maxis case, P. Chidambaram in September 2014 issued a statement saying that no violation of rules happened in the grant of FIPB (Foreign Investment Promotion Board) to Aircel-Maxis deal in 2006.

He had then said that the file regarding the case was put up before him by officials and he approved it “in the normal course". “In the Aircel-Maxis case, the FIPB sought the approval of the finance minister in accordance with the rules. The case was submitted through the additional secretary and secretary, DEA. Both of them recommended the case for approval. Approval was granted by me, as finance minister, in the normal course," Chidambaram had said in the statement.

Gopikrishnan is unmindful about any untoward fallout or backlash he may have to face as a consequence of such exposes. Presumably because the editor backs him.

“These are professional stories done by people who have pursued the investigations for many months. We were not targeted by the previous regime for doing these stories. People were antagonised with the case and we reported it professionally," said Chandan Mitra, editor-in-chief and managing director of The Pioneer. Mitra is also a Member of Parliament (MP) of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The newspaper itself has had an interesting history. It was originally launched in Lucknow and then relaunched from Delhi in 1991 under the leadership of Vinod Mehta. Subsequently, Mehta moved on to Outlook and Mitra came to own the paper.

The latest expose of the paper comes coincidentally just ahead of the launch of an election campaign to five assemblies, including Tamil Nadu. Some see this as a means to smear the Congress, which is in alliance with Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK).

“I don’t think it is going to have repercussions. The developments are for everyone to see. The attack on our leaders are being made to take away the attention from more pressing issues which the BJP is facing itself," Khushboo Sundar, spokesperson and senior leader of the Congress party from Tamil Nadu said.

“Whenever there is a major issue, the BJP uses such diversionary tactics and tries to drift the attention on other issues," she added.

However, its political rivals disagree.

“The Congress party and its senior leaders have been asking about black money in Parliament. Congress party should first answer the corruption allegations it is facing. Just as Congress party had defended some of the ministers and DMK leaders in the 2G spectrum allocation scam, we think the party will also defend P. Chidambaram and his son," said Bharturhari Mahtab, senior leader of BJD, who had initiated the debate in Lok Sabha on Wednesday.

Mitra said that The Pioneer is going to continue working on the case and make some revelations in the Aircel-Maxis scandal in the coming days.

“They are trying to keep the campaign against corruption on top. This is an easy way to revive the issue and keep it on top of the agenda. There is also a backdrop to this (Aircel-Maxis) case with the corruption agenda specially with the state of Tamil Nadu going to poll," said N. Bhaskar Rao, founder and chairman of the Centre for Media Studies, a New Delhi-based think tank.

Anuja contributed to this story.