P Chidambaram
File picture.Reuters

Politicians figuring in controversial kickback cases are not something new in the Indian context. However, when former Union Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram was arrested for his alleged involvement in money laundering in the INX Media case, many have raised their eyebrows.

How come the Harvard-educated high-profile Congress leader landed in jail despite being highly rich, inherited huge ancestral wealth and goodwill?

Although his father Kandanur L Ct L Palaniappa Chettiar has a business in textiles, trading and plantations, Chidambaram chose to concentrate on his legal practice and stayed away from the family business.

The unassuming Chettiar family of Chidambaram, which is considered as the pioneers of organised banking in the country, has left a silent signature on everything from manufacturing to film.

Chettiar family members have interest in a range of businesses and owns Murugappa Group, AVM Studios, the MAM Group and the MAC Group, but the chunk of the family wealth lies in plantations — large tracts in the north and west of Coorg are owned by this family.

In fact, the family business started many decades ago by Chidambaram's ancestors. Annamalai Chettiar, Chidambaram's maternal grandfather, founded the United India Insurance Company and Annamalai University. Besides, Annamalai's brother Ramaswamy Chettiar was the founder of both Indian Bank and Indian Overseas Bank, which were their family business before nationalisation. Chidambaram's two brothers are leading businessmen as well.

Declared Wealth

Like any other politician, the total wealth of Chidambaram is not known, although there are indications divulged by him just before the election. According to the affidavit filed by Chidambaram before the 2014 elections, he had described himself as a senior advocate in the Supreme Court and his wife as a senior advocate in the Madras High Court. According to the affidavit, Chidambaram and his wife together had assets worth Rs 95.66 crore and liabilities to the tune of Rs 5.79 crore. At that time, he had the cash to the tune of Rs 5 lakhs and bank deposits worth of Rs 25.73 crore in 24 different bank accounts. His total movable assets including cash, deposits, mutual funds, gold, shares in 2014 were Rs 54.30 crore, while the value of his immovable assets was Rs 41.35 crore.

Chidambaram, who rose to greater heights in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime, at that time, possessed 32-gram gold valuing Rs 87,232 and 3.25-carat diamonds worth Rs 97,500 while his wife had 1.437 kg of gold valuing Rs 39 lakhs and 52 kg silver worth Rs 20 lakh. She also had diamonds weighing 76.61 carats, which at that time was worth Rs 23 lakhs.

Chidambaram's son Karti, a sitting MP from Sivaganga Constituency, in his poll affidavit in 2019, mentioned the value of his total assets at Rs 79.37 crore and liabilities at Rs 17.69 crore.

INX Media Case

The INX Media case relates to the investment of foreign funds in the company to the tune of Rs 305 crore in 2007 during Chidambaram's tenure as the union finance minister in the Congress-led UPA government. This investment was carried out in violation of the conditions set by the Foreign Investment Promotion Board (FIPB).

According to prosecutors, Chidambaram's modus operandi revolved around granting illegal foreign investment clearances to receive kickbacks. These kickbacks were allegedly often paid through various shell companies floated by Karti, which include Advantage India. The investigating agencies have identified several such shell companies, registered in India and abroad. One of these shell companies had an investment of over Rs 300 crore.

The Enforcement Directorate last year had attached properties worth Rs 54 crore of Karti Chidambaram and a company in India, Spain and the United Kingdom in the INX Media case. The investigative agency has alleged that the then INX Media directors, Peter and Indrani Mukerjea, had met Chidambaram relating to the FIPB approval.