He once presented the ‘Dream Budget’ and was even seen by some as a potential prime ministerial candidate. But 73-year-old “highly intelligent” lawyer-politician Palaniappan Chidambaram would never have imagined he would have to go to Tihar jail.
Two weeks after he was arrested by the CBI over charges of money laundering and corruption in the INX Media case, he faces the toughest crisis of his career.
On Thursday, Chidambaram was sent by a Delhi court to Tihar jail in the national capital.
A votary of free enterprise and unbridled economic reforms, Chidambaram started off as a hard-core leftist arguing in favour of the command economy in the late 1960s.
A scion of a prominent industrialist family from Madras (now Chennai), Chidambaram chose not to join the family business and instead ventured into politics by joining the Congress in 1967.
He remained with Indira Gandhi when the party split in 1969 and caught the eye of the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1984. He was inducted into Rajiv Gandhi government as a junior commerce minister and since then had a meteoric rise.
Chidambaram, who has an MBA from Harvard Business School, was also a junior minister in Prime Minister Narasimha Rao-led government but disagreement with the party’s decision over political alignments saw him quitting and setting up a new political outfit in 1996.
A year later, as finance minister in the United Front — an alliance of 13 parties — government, he presented the ‘Dream Budget’ that helped broaden India’s tax base.
That budget came at a time when economic reforms were seen as anti-poor in the coalition area but were hailed for setting out a path-breaking agenda.
Chidambaram returned to Congress and became finance minister under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He was at the helm of finance ministry between 2004 and 2008, before becoming home minister from December 2008 to July 2012. He returned to the finance ministry for the rest of the UPA-II term that ended in 2014.
A few years back, some in him saw even a potential prime ministerial candidate should a coalition government be formed at the Centre.
Arguing for the CBI, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta last month told a court that Chidambaram was “highly intelligent” and so held tremendous potential for not cooperating in the probe against him.
As a minister, Chidambaram was widely credited with implementing a series of reforms to stem a slowdown in growth, curb a widening fiscal deficit and attract more foreign investment into Asia’s third-largest economy.
In 2014, he did not contest election from his traditional Lok Sabha seat of Sivaganga in Tamil Nadu, which he had won seven times since 1984.
When the BJP came to power that year, probe agencies started casting their net on him and his family in connection with corruption cases, including INX Media, Aircel-Maxis and the more recent purchase of aircraft by Air India during his tenure as finance minister in UPA-II.
A proficient lawyer, who is also known for his administrative prowess, he currently is a Rajya Sabha MP.