My only link to Aircel-Maxis is a SIM card, says Karti Chidambaram
P. Chidambaram’s son makes for a potent cocktail of a businessman and politician that has been the nemesis of many people in public life
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New Delhi: The controversial son of former finance minister P. Chidambaram denies all the charges against him.
“I have nothing to do with Aircel-Maxis. I have explained this ad nauseam. The only connection I have with it is that my SIM card is of Aircel, the one of my primary mobile number,” Karti Chidambaram, the man in the eye of the storm said, responding to the recent developments in the Aircel-Maxis case and the political attack on him, his father and his party over the issue.
Last week, at least two days of the ongoing budget session of Parliament saw repeated disruptions by some lawmakers over the Aircel-Maxis deal. They demanded an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation on the issue. Karti is a member of the Congress.
The Pioneer, in a news report dated 29 February, talked about Karti building a “huge empire for himself in different parts of the world by making investments in real estate and engaging in other business activities”.
Nothing wrong in that—only, the imputation was that all of this had come about thanks to his father being who he was.
The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), arch-rival of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK) which is now in an alliance with the Congress in Tamil Nadu, swung into action and raised slogans and demanded action against Karti in Parliament. The Biju Janata Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party also joined the chorus.
This is not the first time that Karti’s name has come up in the Aircel-Maxis deal. As early as December last year, officials of the income-tax (I-T) department and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) raided the premises of some of Karti’s business associates. Karti has maintained that it is “political vendetta” against his family.
Karti has active business interests, he is the son of the former finance minister, and he is a big wheel in the Congress in Tamil Nadu. That makes for a potent cocktail of business and politics that has been the nemesis of many people in public life.
Born and brought up in Chennai, Karti belongs to the Chettiar community, a trading class in Tamil Nadu. According to Karti, his induction into politics happened as early as 1977 when his father P. Chidambaram unsuccessfully contested the general election. “The first time that I campaigned for an election was in 1977 when I was just six years old. It was in Sivaganga constituency when my father was contesting. I went up to the stage and gave a speech,” he said.
Karti went to Don Bosco school in Egmore, where the children of Chennai’s who’s who studied. The school boasts alumni such as chess wizard Viswanathan Anand, tennis stars Vijay and Anand Amritraj, and actor Arvind Swamy. The Marans—Dayanidhi and Kalanithi of the DMK—are also alumni of the school, albeit a few years senior to Karti. After his schooling (he was head boy in his final year), Karti went on to study business management at Austin, Texas and later, law at Cambridge. He runs a few consulting firms.
But his heart was always in politics, says a friend.
“He has been politically ambitious since school. And in a way, it was natural because his father was one of the youngest Union ministers from our state. In school days, Karti was very passionate about tennis and he was a fearless debater in school,” said Mohanan Rajesh, who has known Karti since the time both of them were 3.
Rajesh isn’t just a friend.
He is also a director of Advantage Strategic Consulting Pvt. Ltd, one of the companies whose premises were raided by ED in December last year as a part of the larger probe into the Aircel-Maxis deal. According to Rajesh, Karti has no links with the company.
When Karti came back to India in the mid-1990s after studying abroad, a political upheaval was happening in his home state. His father had broken away from the Congress and joined a breakaway group which came to be known as Tamil Maanila Congress.
“P. Chidambaram eventually formed his own party called Congress Jananayaka Peravai, which in a way was Karti’s first foray into actual political management. He was handling a lot of affairs for the new party. After this party merged with the Congress, Karti was keen on becoming the Youth Congress chief in the state but that did not happen,” a senior leader of the Congress belonging to Tamil Nadu said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Karti is currently a member of the Congress but not an ordinary one, despite not holding an official post. Congress leaders say that he is “closely involved” with the party’s affairs in the state, visibly so. He is believed to have been instrumental in bringing new members into the Indian Youth Congress’s state unit. He regularly interacts with the party cadre. His message is often the same, they add: make money and then get into politics; don’t get into politics to make money.
“He says, ‘I am a businessman and then I forayed into politics. You cannot make politics the means to earn a fortune’,” said N. Arul Pethiah, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Congress committee.
“Karti Chidambaram has his own style of politics. He goes around in Tamil Nadu, meets the cadre regularly and engages with everyone. He is a good orator,” added Pethiah.
Karti isn’t universally liked in the party, though.
“He is not a full-time politician and dabbles with his business interests. He has a very strong personality but he is arrogant. He belongs to an affluent family and it (the arrogance) is expected to an extent, but he tends to carry it too far. That is something he needs to be mindful of,” the senior Congress leader cited above added.
Indeed, there are some who hold him responsible for the split in the state’s Congress. In November 2014, after the party’s poor showing in that year’s parliamentary elections, former Union minister G.K. Vasan left the Congress to form his own party.
Karti unsuccessfully contested the general election in 2014 on a Congress ticket from the Sivaganga Lok Sabha constituency. It was his father’s borough. According to data by the National Election Watch of New Delhi-based Association for Democratic Reforms, Karti declared assets of around Rs.25 crore (in his name and his wife’s).
After the loss and the split, Karti stayed out of the news, till the Aircel-Maxis issue cropped up again.
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 Communications Bhd in 2006. The Malaysian company, in return, invested in Kalanithi Maran’s Sun Direct, the direct-to-home TV arm of his Sun TV Network Ltd. There are allegations that Karti was involved in the multicrore corruption scandal.
Advantage Strategic Consulting, not surprisingly, would appear to be the link.
There are allegations that the company was involved in the Aircel-Maxis deal. It has claimed it once did a consulting assignment for Aircel. There are further allegations that Advantage’s Singapore arm, Advantage Strategic Consulting Singapore Pte. Ltd, owns real estate and has invested in around 15 countries. Also in the mix is Vasan Healthcare. In September, in a series of articles in The New Indian Express, S. Gurumurthy, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologue and Chennai-based chartered accountant, alleged that Chidambaram received black money through Vasan, which he and son Karti owned through front companies, specifically Advantage Strategic Consulting.
“Bizarre allegations are being attached to me. Can anyone tell me what my connection with Aircel-Maxis is? If my friend’s company does an assignment, what has that to do with me? The file returns of our companies are compliant with RoC (Registrar of Companies), I-T department and RBI (Reserve Bank of India). If there is any irregularity in our assets, ED should launch an investigation,” Karti said in a phone conversation from Chennai.
“How do I prove a negative? If I go public and say you have 1,000 acres of land in Delhi and now you go and prove how I am wrong. There is a larger political game behind this which is to defame my father and I am just a small pawn in it. Have I ever got a government contract? Have I had any dealings with the government? No,” he added.
The problem is, things aren’t as straightforward. At one point in time, according to an article in The Economic Times based on filings with RoC, Karti owned 95% of a firm called Ausbridge Holdings and Investments Pvt. Ltd which, in turn, at one point owned 66% of Advantage (mintne.ws/1QXyEYA). However, in March 2012, Karti resigned as director of Ausbridge and sold his stake.
Rajesh reiterated that Advantage is compliant with every law of the land and has nothing to do with Karti.
“Today everyone is coming up with fancy numbers about our assets. We have fully complied with all the legalities. Everything is in the public domain for everyone to see. And most importantly, Karti has nothing to do with this. Somebody needs to tell us on what basis these allegations are being made,” added Rajesh.
According to Karti, the attacks on him by the AIADMK are timed with the forthcoming assembly elections. Tamil Nadu goes to the polls in April-May, with the Congress-DMK alliance pitted against the incumbent AIADMK. He is now gearing up for the crucial state polls.
But Karti still doesn’t regret being a businessman.
“I don’t think anybody can be a full-time politician. It is essential to have a full-time career. Politics should not be seen as a medium to earn a fortune. I am not in government, I don’t even have a post in the party, I have to look at a career first. If I get a chance of being in executive power, I will give myself full-time to it,” he said.
Ashish K. Mishra in Mumbai contributed to this story.
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