At a function that attracted the state’s political and social elite as well as India’s top industrialists, Modi gestured towards Singh and said, “Amar Singh is here. He knows how those in power in the past used to secretly meet industrialists and travel in their private jets.” Singh couldn’t stop beaming although the PM’s remark was an equivoque. Delhi and its power circuits knew too well that Singh was not a little pitcher with big ears. He was a player, a major player, who altered the flow of politics a few times, because he befriended the rich and the powerful with as much ease as making enemies.
However, Modi’s comment granted Singh exclusive time with the chief minister,
Singh belonged to an “exclusive” club of politicians who evolved and created a new genre in the post-liberalisation era that fostered an exponential growth of the private sector but could not discard the shackles of a governing order wedded to regimentation and patronage. They were not “dalals”, that would be doing injustice to the special skills they brought to political trade and commerce.
They were bereft of a mass base although Singh tried to use his origins as an East UP Rajput from time to time but to no effect. What he lacked in popular adulation was adequately compensated with a talent for networking among the movers and shakers outside politics.
He pioneered a new political stream that blended “netagiri” with industry and enlarged the dimensions to get in Bollywood and oomph. Quite simply, Singh made political coverage exciting.
Singh’s closest friends included industry Alisters, film stars and the eco system they came with and the leaders of regional parties. I recall that when H D Deve Gowda was the Prime Minister, he was off to address a rally in Lucknow, organised by the Samajwadi Party that Singh formally joined in 1996.
Mulayam Singh Yadav, then the SP president and defence minister in the Gowda government, had organised the show of strength. Gowda became fidgety on not spotting Singh and relaxed when he arrived shortly before take off. The Congress-supported United Front coalition was a pivotal point in Singh’s career because his proximity to the defence minister fetched dividends for the future.
Mulayam, who was more comfortable in the boondocks of Etawah rather than Lucknow and Delhi, went through a makeover as the Singh brand of politics overwhelmed him. To the provincial leader, Bollywood and industry were the ingress to glamour.
He hosted Amitabh and
By then Mulayam and Singh befriended Subrato Roy, who used to own the Sahara empire although Roy, whose dealings were often allegedly suspect, was on the periphery of a holy trinity of the A’s: Amar, Amitabh and Anil Ambani. The Bollywood-industry melange was in full play at Lucknow. Singh was appointed the chairperson of the UP Development Council that apparently had the carte blanche to facilitate investments and see projects to the fruition. He brought in Anil Ambani, Adi Godrej, Kumaramangalam Birla and L K Khaitan. In 2005, he had Mulayam host a banquet for Bill Clinton and later grandiosely claimed he had raised funds for Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Singh hadn’t quite climbed the pinnacle of power in UP. Delhi was his destination and the moment came when the UPA was in power. His relations with
The sky was not the limit for Singh. He leveraged his clout to extract heavy-duty economic and business concessions from the government, and was among the few who could enter Sonia’s 10, Janpath residence without security constraints. Whenever he threatened to pull out of the UPA, Sonia personally intervened to bring peace.
In 2008, at the UPA’s fourth anniversary celebration at Manmohan Singh’s house, a seat was reserved for Singh at the PM’s table with Shivraj Patil, Sitaram Yechury, Sharad Pawar and Santosh Mohan Dev. But he was 45 minutes late. By the time dessert was served, Congress veteran Karan Singh took his place. Singh sat with some UP leaders, forlorn. But Manmohan Singh spotted him, left the high table and walked the extra mile—about 20 steps—to the SP general secretary and chatted with him for a quarter of an hour. “Morning shows the ray of light, let us catch the ray,” he later said.
Sprinkling his conversations with aphorisms, couplets and lines from Hindi film songs, when Singh first parted ways with the SP in 2011 and the Bachchans who stayed with the Yadavs, he quoted part of the lyrics from a Guru Dutt film that went, “Waqt ne kiya kya haseen sitam” to reflect his state of mind.
The original trio had unravelled. Anil Ambani’s business went insolvent but Amitabh towered over Bollywood. Singh’s political career tottered. He was jinxed by serial controversies: in 2008, he was arrested for allegedly bribing three BJP MPs to vote the nuclear deal in the Lok Sabha; a phone tapping incident in 2011 revealed he purportedly said scurrilous things about politicians and later a CD showed him and Mulayam in conversation with a lawyer about fixing the judiciary.
The boy from North Kolkata’s Burra Bazaar, whose father owned a hardware store, scaled heights few without a mass base could. He started in Delhi as an industrialist’s liaison officer, ingratiated himself with Amitabh Bachchan, won Mulayam’s affection and unfroze Sonia.
“Fixers”, once permanent fixtures in Delhi’s five-star coffee shops and restaurants, are a vanishing species in a highly centralised regime that claims to have banished the tribe of middlemen. Singh might have been an anachronism in the present times.