By T S Sudhir in Sivaganga
My cameraperson requested Karti Chidambaram to move a bit to his left. He said so in Hindi and Karti snapped immediately, “Hey, do not speak to me in Hindi because I wouldn’t understand a word of it.” I expressed surprise considering he spends quite a bit of time in Delhi.
“Why? Is it the national language that it is necessary to know it? How many people in Delhi know to speak Tamil?” he continued. I wanted to tell him how much I admire anyone who can speak several languages but decided against prolonging the conversation.
Cut to a nondescript village on the outskirts of Karaikudi in Sivaganga district a couple of hours later. Karti had just arrived in his SUV to campaign. This Karti with the mike was markedly different, indulging in small talk, trying to make the sparse audience of some 40 people comfortable. He was also smiling much more, following his dad Union Finance minister P Chidambaram’s advice.
“What exam tomorrow? Prepared for it? My daughter also has an exam, she is studying in 8th class,” he chattered.
Karti Chidambaram who is contesting the Lok Sabha election from Sivaganga after his father decided to abstain from elections this time, faces an uphill task. Given the frosty relationship between his father and Tamilnadu chief minister Jayalalithaa, the latter has already given a call to defeat the 42-year-old comprehensively.
“You should ensure Karti Chidambaram loses his deposit. Will you all do it? Will you all do it?” she thundered at a public meeting in Sivaganga on March 21.
Even without Jaya’s call, the writing is pretty much on the wall. One of the stories of this election in Tamilnadu is how the Congress has been reduced to a side character in the state’s political theatre. Unlike earlier elections, neither of the two Dravidian parties showed an interest to ally with the party. And Chidambaram’s refusal to contest was an admission that there was no light at the end of the tunnel for the party. At least not in Tamilnadu even though the leaders choose to ignore the larger malaise that afflicts the Congress and adopt a brave posture vis-a-vis its splendid isolation. TNCC president B S Gnanadesikan says, “It’s not new for Congress to go alone. We have already contested alone in 1998 Parliament elections. It’s a long time since we contested alone. Workers are very happy.”
The fairly smooth 66 km long drive on the highway from Madurai to Sivaganga is deceptive. For it does not prepare you for what lies ahead. Sivaganga is listed among India’s 250 most backward districts by the Union Panchayati Raj ministry. Chidambaram has been elected seven times from here by the constituency which has ten lakh voters this election. That included a controversial victory in 2009, when he scraped through by just 3354 votes during a recount, leading to the taunt of “recounting minister” that Narendra Modi constantly throws at him. Will the Chidambaram surname make it Advantage Karti for the tennis-loving candidate is what everyone is curious about. Karti’s rival, H Raja of the BJP does not think so.
“Chidambaram does not want to lose his deposit and political face at the fag end of his political career. In Tamilnadu, no Congress candidate will get back his deposit. All the 39 candidates. Because there is no credibility. Most incompetent and corrupt government was provided by UPA 1 and 2,” says Raja.
Karti Chidambaram is contemptuous of his father’s critics, dismissing them as political nobodies. “People who are commenting about him have not even contested a panchayat election. They are commenting on someone who has contested eight elections on the trot, from the same constituency, which is a record in Tamilnadu. No one has won seven times from the same constituency, not even the formidable Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa, who keep changing constituencies,” he says.
Call it self-confidence or arrogance, Karti and his father’s personality traits are both a talking point and a factor in this election. “Father always has the sophistication of hiding his arrogance, but his son lacks even that,” says political analyst Gnani Sankaran, who is also contesting from Chennai on an Aam Aadmi Party ticket.
“They are fed up with P Chidambaram. Whenever people go to him with a complaint, he says I am finance minister for entire country. It is not my headache. Such an attitude has created a bad image about Mr Chidambaram and people are not willing to accept him any more,” adds Raja.
But stand anywhere in Sivaganga and you are unlikely to miss P Chidambaram’s influence over the constituency. His position as Finance minister meant that just about anyone in Sivaganga can laugh his way to the bank. Sivaganga is home to 254 bank branches and of the 20 nationalised banks, 19 have set up shop here. There is a branch in the district for every 5000 people, far ahead of the national average of one branch for 8000 people. Which is why Karti is happy to make it an Amma versus Appa proxy battle, pitting his father’s development work against that of the government run by Jayalalithaa.
“Banks are visible because he is the finance minister. But a lot of other work has also happened other than banks. Banks have a lot of fallout effect. We have opened banks, what has the AIADMK opened other than liquor shops,” argues Karti, who declared assets worth Rs 59 crore in his affidavit.
Chidambaram Senior likes to talk about the 900 crore rupees worth education loans that have been given by the banks to 50000 students since 2004. But many doubt if the achievement will act as an ATM from which Karti can withdraw goodwill returns. S.Selvaraju, Secretary General, Southern India Mills Association points out that Sivaganga has not progressed like Salem, Erode or Coimbatore. “Industrialisation has to happen. Banks alone will not help people improve their standard of living,” he says.
Sivaganga that is flanked by districts like Madurai, Trichy and Virudhunagar is more like a poor cousin, its track record in development nothing to write home about. “Virudhunagar district which was also created along with Sivaganga, has become industrially and commercially advanced. What is there to tell about this constituency. There is no industry,” says Raja.
The industry body in the district agrees. Mohammed Ilyas, Vice President, Sivaganga Chamber of Commerce says, “Karti Chidambaram would have blindly won from here if Chidambaram had concentrated more here. Now it is difficult for him.”
But PC, as P Chidambaram is often referred to, would hope Sivaganga would reboot in favour of his son. On April 24 will be report card time when the electorate will decide whether the gravy train of goodies brought in by Dad was enough to usher in a son-rise in Sivaganga.