Man with the plan

Chidambaram is no mass leader, but his political acumen makes him indispensable to the Congress

  • “Rahul consults Chidambaram on every important issue. He has even quoted PC in many of his speeches. Chidambaram is now the most reliable man on Indian economics.” - Peter Alphonse, Congress leader

A few weeks after Prime Minister Narendra Modi demonetised 1,000- and 500-rupee notes on November 8, a motley crowd gathered at Sathyamurthy Bhavan, the Congress headquarters in Chennai. Young men and women, engineers and IT professionals, students and street traders sat on chairs spread across the open space before the building, as a dhoti-clad man began to speak on the ill effects of demonetisation.

The crowd grew steadily as the man lucidly explained, in Tamil, the consequences of demonetisation, its effect on the lives of ordinary people like them, and the complexities involved in detecting black money. “Black money is something that cannot be stocked, but which continues to flow,” he said.

The man at the podium was Palaniappan Chidambaram. Over the past one year, the 72-year-old Congress veteran has emerged as a major thorn in the side of the Modi government. As former Union finance minister, he has been incisive in his criticism of the government’s policy missteps, and his meticulously mounted attacks have resonated with the people. Through his writings, speeches and tweets, he has openly taken on Modi and galvanised the party to such an extent that others have followed in his footsteps.

If Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, after his well-received Berkeley speech in September, has been the face of his party’s recent resurgence, Chidambaram has been its chief architect. “The people’s
disappointment and disapproval are turning them against the BJP and towards the Congress,” Chidambaram told THE WEEK in an exclusive interview. “When people warm up to a political party, that party will become more energised and active.”

Said K.S. Alagiri, a Congress leader in Tamil Nadu who is known to be close to Chidambaram: “He has travelled to some 10 corporations in the recent past to deliver lectures on economy and political economy, not just to think-tanks and policymakers, but also to laymen to make them understand the consequences of Modi’s economic policies. There is no other leader in the country who can explain things in such a simple way. He was in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh meeting top leaders and addressing business communities. He has delivered lectures to students and others in Hyderabad, Pune, Chhattisgarh and Kolkata.”

18-Chidambaram P. Chidambaram | PTI

The talks have not been without controversies. Last month, Chidambaram’s statement on the security situation in Kashmir drew brickbats from ministers and BJP leaders, including Modi himself. “The demand in Kashmir valley is to respect in letter and spirit Article 370. And that means greater autonomy for Kashmir,” Chidambaram had told a reporter when asked whether he still believed in granting greater autonomy for the state. “My interactions in J&K led me to the conclusion that when they ask for azaadi [independence], most people—I am not saying all—want autonomy.”

BJP leaders promptly attacked Chidambaram saying his position was against national interest. “Why are Congress leaders lending their voice to those who want azaadi in Kashmir?” asked Modi at a rally in Bengaluru. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said the Congress wanted to “precipitate a crisis” for India.

Chidambaram, however, has stood by his comment. “Obviously, the PM has not read the whole answer to the question put to me on Jammu and Kashmir,” he tweeted later. “Those who criticise must read and tell me which word in the answer was wrong.”

His sharp tongue and intellect have made PC, as Chidambaram is popularly known, indispensable to the Congress. “Even Rahul Gandhi consults Chidambaram on every important issue concerning economy and finance,” said Peter Alphonse, Congress leader in Tamil Nadu. “Rahul has even quoted PC in many of his speeches. He is now the most reliable man on Indian economics and he is being targeted [by the BJP] only because of this.”

The CBI and the Enforcement Directorate are inquiring into allegations of financial misconduct against Chidambaram’s son and political heir, Karti. In an FIR lodged in May, the CBI said it found irregularities in the Foreign Investment Promotion Board clearance to INX Media for receiving Rs 300 crore from abroad in 2007, when Chidambaram was finance minister. It is alleged that Karti helped INX Media circumvent the limit on foreign equity investments for media companies.

Karti, 45, has denied the allegations. “Nothing will come out of these cases,” he said. “They are not even able to file the charge-sheet till date.”

Leading the saffron camp’s attack on Chidambaram are RSS ideologue S. Gurumurthy and BJP leader Subramanian Swamy. Gurumurthy has alleged that a company controlled by Karti, known as Advantage Strategic Consulting Pvt Ltd, was involved in the 2G spectrum scam and several controversial deals in the recent past. Swamy recently wrote to Modi listing out the cases against Chidambaram and Karti, saying that even though the Prime Minister’s Office cannot direct the CBI, it can “nevertheless hold the CBI accountable under the Constitution for the expenditure it incurs from the Consolidated Fund of India.”

Chidambaram has brushed aside the allegations saying that he is ready to transfer ownership of any of his assets to the government, in case it is found to be illegal. “If the government finds one asset—property, bank account, etc—that I or my family members have not disclosed in our income tax and wealth tax returns, let the government draw up a document and I and my family members will sign the document and transfer that asset in favour of the government,” he told THE WEEK.

Chidambaram’s assertive nature has often been construed as arrogance. Perhaps, that is why he is not a mass leader. It is said that he chose not to contest the 2014 Lok Sabha election from his hometown, Sivaganga, because he knew that he would be defeated. His margin of victory in the 2009 elections was narrow. A senior Congress leader said Chidambaram had little connect with the party cadres in his constituency. In 2014, Karti stood for election and finished fourth.

His lack of popular appeal, however, has not inhibited his rise. “He might not be a mass leader. But, as a strategist, he has remained important in the decision-making in the Congress over the years,” said political observer R.K. Radhakrishnan.

Even rivals concede that Chidambaram shines as a strategist. “He is the most well-informed and the most articulate among our seniors. He is well-versed in Hindi, English and Tamil,” said a senior Congress leader who is not known to have cordial relations with Chidambaram. “Manmohan Singh or Pranab Mukherjee is not in the list of advisers who are close to Rahul Gandhi. When Manmohan hangs up his gloves, it will be PC who takes over, and it seems this has already begun.”

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