Chidambaram: After meteoric rise, the steep fall

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Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) officials arrest Congress leader P Chidambaram (centre) from his Jor Bagh residence in New Delhi on Wednesday, August 21, 2019. The Delhi High Court on Tuesday had refused to grant any protection from arrest to Chidambaram in his alleged role in the INX media case. (Photo:PTI)
Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) officials arrest Congress leader P Chidambaram (centre) from his Jor Bagh residence in New Delhi on Wednesday, August 21, 2019. The Delhi High Court on Tuesday had refused to grant any protection from arrest to Chidambaram in his alleged role in the INX media case. (Photo:PTI)

It was nothing short of a blockbuster thriller– cops and enforcement agencies with arrest warrant frantically looking out for Congress leader and former Union Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram, who was “missing” for about 24 hours. Suddenly, Chidambaram—faced with money laundering and corruption charges– decided to appear at the Congress headquarters on Wednesday evening and addresses a press conference barely a couple of hours before he was arrested. 

At the widely watched press conference, the 73 year old lawyer-turned-politician appeared comfortable and composed exchanging pleasantries with his colleagues.

This is no surprise to people who know him well. A simple analysis of the sequence of events will tell that even as the focus remained on the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), it was Chidambaram who managed to hog the limelight with the press conference.

In his signature style, he asked the enforcement agencies to respect the law and wait for the Supreme Court hearing.

“If I am asked to choose between life and liberty, I will unhesitatingly choose liberty,” Chidambaram, who denied all charges against him, said at the presser. Now, anybody who has been in the news business would know that this statement of his will hit the headlines.

Chidambaram did not take any questions from media people. If he had to skirt questions from the media, then why have a press conference!
But then that is the trademark of Chidambaram. 

Congress leader P Chidambaram (centre) addressing a press conference along with party leaders Kapil Sibal (right) and Abhishek Singhvi (left) at Congress headquarters in New Delhi on Wednesday, August 21, 2019. Almost an hour after this presser, Chidambaram was arrested by the CBI from his Jor Bagh residence. (Photo:PTI)

The man, who is known for his arrogance, strong likes and dislikes always had a love-hate relation with the media. He remained a union minister for full 10 years in the UPA-I and UPA-II governments and use the media to the fullest. He regularly held press conferences and met reporters –whether or not he shared any piece of information.

The rise of Chidambaram

The erudite Chidambaram, armed with a degree in law and an MBA from the Harvard Business School, joined the Congress party in 1984. While he was associated with several ministries including that of commerce and industry mostly as junior minister till mid-1990s, it was in 1997 that he made his mark with his “dream budget”. Interestingly, Chidambaram, at this point had quit the Congress to join Tamil Maanila Congress—breakaway faction of the state Congress unit. He was given the plum portfolio of finance by the then Prime Minister Deve Gowda, who was leading a fragile United Front government at that time.

Chidambaram brought in bold reforms and drastically reduced personal and corporate tax rates. However, soon the government fell and he joined back the Congress party.

Even as many of his colleagues from the United Front government saw the end of their political careers, Chidambaram kept himself widely alive in the newsrooms and even wrote a weekly column for the Indian Express. As finance and home minister, he regularly held media briefings. Not just that, he off and on invited journalists for meals. In fact, his Pongal parties were a big hit among journalists.

In 2004, the Manmohan Singh led UPA government took centre stage and there was no looking back for Chidambaram, who is known for his proximity to Singh. In 2004, he once again assumed charge as India’s finance minister. But this time the road was bumpy for finance minister Chidambaram. Many of his proposals were shot down by the Left parties, which were in coalition with the Congress.

Despite that, Chidambaram won the trust of his bosses and was considered one of the performing ministers. In fact, it was his brainchild to carve out a Rs 70,000 crore farm debt waiver scheme to woo the farmers especially at a time when they were in absolute distress.

While the move was fiercely criticised by economists and policymakers, it played a huge role in helping UPA win the subsequent 2009 Lok Sabha elections. 

The down slide begins for Chidambaram

In November 2008, Chidambaram was shifted to the home ministry. At home, many say, he was never comfortable. There were several security lapses and in 2011 the three co-ordinated bomb explosions ripped Mumbai within three years of the 26/11 terror attacks.

In August 2012, Chidambaram shifted back to the North Block. Many felt that his primary role was to once again carve out schemes which could help the Congress in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. But the man had lost his mojo by then. He had used up all his tricks to woo the masses and moreover, people had begun to see through his trickery. Congress party decisively lost the 2014 General Elections and Narendra Modi took the reins of the country.

It was thence that Chidambaram’s misdeeds that lay buried in dusty files came into the limelight. One of these was about the misappropriation of funds in INX Media. Narendra Modi who came on the mandate to fight corruption was in no mood to brush this under the carpet. A shrewd lawyer that he is Chidambaram continued to dodge the CBI during Modi’s first term. His luck ran out when Narendra Modi returned back with a bigger mandate for a second term. CBI and Enforcement Directorate (ED) issued a Look-Out notice for Chidambaram and arrested him after high drama on Wednesday night. CBI and ED continue to grill their former boss and are preparing to take Chidambaram on a remand for fourteen days as he continues to evade their questions.

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