Amar Singh was a resourceful backroom operator, but it was no substitute for his lack of public base
In the last eight months, the setting for his monologues on social media had moved from his home to a lonely hospital bed in Singapore. Amar Singh was not new to the quirky side of time. Not long ago, his official residence at 27, Lodi Estate in Delhi witnessed the daily buzz of television news crews and journalists as they waited for his soundbite. The swift rise and fall of Amar Singh in the power alleys of Delhi and Lucknow mirrored the expedient possibilities of liaisoning and cronyism in power politics, corporate heft, and celluloid glamour before becoming a case study of the dangers of overplaying one’s hand too soon.
In some ways, Singh became a byword for the full run of the vagaries that a decade and a half can bring to a life in politics. It was also a period when the compulsions of coalition politics at the centre made the ground fertile for political dealmakers like him. A far more lingering imprint of him, as much as it’s a damaging one in the eyes of his ideological critics, would be of his role in making the leader of an avowedly Lohiaite entity like the Samajwadi Party drift towards a path of champagne socialism.
Born in 1956 at Azamgarh in east Uttar Pradesh, Amar Singh spent his formative years in Kolkata. While his father met family expenses with his shop dealing with locks at Bara Bazaar in the city, Singh graduated with a law degree from Calcutta University. His first brush with politics came with his membership of the Chhatra Parishad, the student unit of the Congress in West Bengal. At a time when the Left movement and Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led front government held sway in the state, his choice of aligning with a Congress body was no less interesting.
Singh turned to his home state, Uttar Pradesh, to find his political footing. He cut his teeth under the mentorship of Congress leaders like former chief minister Vir Bahadur Singh. However, a chance encounter with SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav — some accounts say that it happened during a flight — proved to be a turning point in his career. Singh, like any keen observer of state politics, could see the Congress sliding towards irrelevance in the state and the SP, having already had his first stint in power, as a force to reckon with in India’s most populous state.
At the time of joining the SP, he was active in pursuing parallel routes of influence. His efforts to ingratiate himself to corporate houses were yielding initial spells of success, as evident in him becoming a board member of a chemical company. His rising stock with the party ensured him a Rajya Sabha seat in 1996, and he retained it for four terms till his death, though his last term as MP in the upper house was as an independent member with only the outside support of the SP.
Singh was aware of his political limitations, most notably a clear lack of a popular support base. He tried to compensate for it with making himself useful in the task of ensuring steady financing for the party and augmenting its profile in national politics. Using his networking and the promise of the mutuality of interests, Singh managed to develop close ties with big names in the corporate world like Anil Ambani and Subroto Roy.
This was supplemented with a dab of glamour as Singh leveraged his rapport with a few Bollywood stars. Most visibly, his help in extricating Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan, for instance, from a debt trap brought the star and his family closer to the SP fold. The spillover of the party celluloid hobnobbing could clearly be seen in the glitter of the SP’s signature event, the Saifai Mahotsava.
The party-corporate-celluloid triumvirate manifested itself when the SP government set up the UP Development Council, or UPDC, in 2003 under Singh’s chairmanship. Along with bureaucrats as government’s representatives, the council included Singh’s friends in the industry and even movie star Bachchan.
However, it was in 2008 that Singh had his moment at the centrestage of national politics. Coming to the rescue of the United Progressive Alliance government after the Left parties withdrew support on the question of signing the India-US nuclear deal, Singh convinced SP supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav to pledge the support of his 39 MPs. The support proved decisive and the UPA government survived. Amar Singh emerged as a key figure in the whole exercise, and the news media chose the title of a popular movie to come up with the headline “Singh is King”. Ironically, the year proved to be the start of the rapid fall of his political fortunes.
As his name figured in the cash-for-votes scam, which involved bribes allegedly offered to three Bharatiya Janata Party MPs for their support in the Parliament, Singh alleged vendetta politics. In the past, he had more than ruffled the feathers of senior Congress leaders like P Chidambaram, Mani Shankar Aiyar and Digvijaya Singh, to name a few.
Moreover, he couldn’t bridge the trust deficit with Sonia Gandhi, especially after the infamous incident of Sonia making him wait for a long time outside her office. Till his death, he felt bitter about Chidambaram making the Delhi police pursue the case against him and the judicial custody that saw Singh being sent to Tihar Jail in 2011. However, the lack of evidence meant that he was soon free and absolved of the charge.
Even more challenging was the resentment against him within a section of the party — primarily led by the heir apparent, Mulayam’s son Akhilesh Yadav, and Mulayam’s brother Ramgopal Yadav. Even though Singh himself resigned from the party in early 2011, the disgruntled group prevailed on Mulayam to formally expel Singh from the party in the same year. Singh floated his own party, the Rashtriya Lok Manch, in the run-up to the state poll. The SP won the 2012 Assembly poll and returned to power with Akhilesh as chief minister. Expectedly, bereft of any mass base, Singh’s party lost in all the 360 seats it contested.
While Mulayam and his younger brother Shivpal initiated the process of reinstating Singh as one of the general secretaries of the party in 2016, it didn’t work for too long in the face of stiff resistance from the Akhilesh-Ramgopal camp. Two years earlier, in the 2014 Lok Sabha poll, Singh had contested from the Fatehpur Sikri seat on a Rashtriya Lok Dal ticket. His last shot at winning the popular vote ended in defeat. These were also the years when wide rifts appeared in his relations with the Bachchan family, seemingly because of Jaya Bachchan’s reluctance to leave the SP when he had cut his ties with the party in 2011. Early this year, Singh regretted his overreaction and had warm words to say about his old friend in Bollywood.
The last phase of his political statements veered towards an endorsement of prime minister Narendra Modi’s leadership and policies. In Uttar Pradesh, in the wake of his running verbal feud with Azam Khan, Singh also sounded supportive of Yogi Adiyanath’s government. However, it was also a phase when Singh made peace with his irrelevance in state and national politics.
One aspect of his public persona provided unending material to the news media: his flippant and couplet-laced remarks bordering on buffoonery and the infamous leaked phone tapes. The two seen with his political moves were once dubbed as Amar Chitra Katha. However, when he chose to share it, there was a more thoughtful side to his political reflections too. Some of his social media videos reflect a keen observer of ideas and trends in the evolution of Indian politics, and certainly a repository of historical memory. His reflections on the ideological churning and evolution of the Lohiaite-socialist stream and nationalist thought, for instance, are a case in point.
In retrospect, Amar Singh’s life in politics acquired the pathos of decay soon after a very brief spell of dizzying importance. Besides circumstances, a tinge of misplaced hubris could be seen as his undoing. In the power play of democratic politics, even the most resourceful of backroom operators are no substitute to those having the base of mass support. Singh couldn’t grasp it early enough. A low key presence could have ensured his political longevity as well as influence. However, the hypothetical possibilities and a moral plot shouldn’t deny what his time in public life was: a short but flamboyantly eventful stay.