New Delhi: It was a sunny afternoon at the Congress headquarters in the national capital in the early 1990s. A Contessa car stopped on the porch and Madhavrao Scindia emerged from it. As he went inside, a young man came out of the car from the right door and approached the reporters assembled outside.
“Is nachheez ko Amar Singh kahte hain. Main hoon Scindia sahib ka chamcha (I am called Amar Singh and I am Mr Scindia’s flunkey),” he declared, taking them aback. Amar Singh, who passed away Saturday, was in his late 30s then, but the seasoned Congress reporters were shocked by his candidness. They fell for him instantly.
That was, what these reporters realised later, the biggest strength of Amar Singh — no pretensions.
Born into a lock shop-owning family in Uttar Pradesh’s Aligarh in 1956, he had to shift to Kolkata as the family moved there in the 1960s and started a hardware shop. By late 1980s, Singh had become the liaison officer of industrialist K.K. Birla — proprietor of the Hindustan Times — and developed a good rapport with Scindia who made him a member of the All India Congress Committee (AICC). That was when he had collided with the Congress reporters.
They had many other encounters with him in subsequent days and years, which enlightened them about the murky corporate-politics-Bollywood nexus.
The negotiations of 2009
This reporter, as The Indian Express correspondent then, was once invited to his Lutyens’ Delhi address in the run-up to the formation of the UPA II government in 2009. The invitation was in response to frantic calls to Singh as the Times of India kept publishing front page stories about the Samajwadi Party (SP) negotiating plum portfolios like defence and finance with the Congress.
Given how Amar Singh had swung Mulayam Sigh Yadav’s SP in favour of the India-US nuclear deal, dumping the Left parties to save the Manmohan Singh government during the trust vote in 2008, the SP seemed to be in a commanding position to pluck the portfolios it wished in the UPA II government. Amar Singh, the chief negotiator then, would be extremely selective in his briefing, though. And so the frantic calls.
Amar Singh’s residence looked like a corporate office then, with all the glamour and glitz one could only imagine in a parliamentarian’s house. After this correspondent was ushered into a room by a lady corporate executive, so to speak, the first question one could bounce off was: “What a nice place, Sir! I am told there is a swimming pool on the terrace and a Jacuzzi in your house! Is it here only?”
Amar Singh looked unimpressed as he replied, “To aap Shekhar Gupta ke akhbaar se ho (So you are from Shekhar Gupta’s newspaper)? I know why you are here.” He went on to add that he knew how I, as The Indian Express correspondent, must have been “missing the real news” (about the SP’s share of the portfolios) and so I was there.
“Yes, I admit I have been missing stories. But how come you don’t even take my calls and give out everything to a single newspaper! Aisa kya ho gaya (What has happened?)” I said, gingerly.
“Suppose I give you the news, Shekhar Gupta will ask you to verify — from the Congress and others. What’s the point of giving you the news then? You kept calling and so I have met you. But khabar bhi chahiye aur journalism of courage bhi chahiye… aise nahin hota na (but you can’t get news and also practise journalism of courage; it doesn’t work like this),” said Amar Singh as he got up, folding his hands in greeting and as a signal for me to leave.
While Amar Singh refused to play ball then, this correspondent had the last laugh as I reported how the Congress never had any plans to accommodate the SP in the government, not to speak of the daily ‘newsbreaks’ about the plum portfolios being negotiated.
But that was Amar Singh, using the media and everything else at his command to project himself as the man wielding power.
The ‘corporate fixer’
There was no looking back for him as he fancied the reel life characters of Amar, Akbar, Anthony troika in his real life — Amar-Anil (Ambani)-Amitabh (Bachchan). He had come close to the Bachchans when he and Jaya were members of the Central Board for Film Certification in the late 1980s and that had opened his door to Bollywood celebrities.
By 1996, he was an SP nominee in the Rajya Sabha, thanks to his introduction to Mulayam Singh Yadav through former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Vir Bahadur Singh. Amar Singh was credited with Sr. Yadav’s fascination with Bollywood actors, especially heroines who would perform in his home town during the annual Saifai Mahotsava — from Madhuri Dixit and Mallika Sherawat to Alia Bhatt and who not.
Singh had made his name as “corporate fixer” or “corporate Thakur”, thanks to his friendship with the Ambanis, Subrata Roy of Sahara India Pariwar, Birlas and anyone one could name from the corporate sector. An alumnus of St. Xavier’s and University College of Law, Kolkata, Singh might not be very fluent in English but he had his way with the elite in Delhi and Mumbai — in both the corporate world and in Bollywood.
In the leaked audio tape of 2005-06, which Singh termed as “doctored” and “morphed”, a prominent industrialist of that time could be heard using expletives like “behen…” and talking about Bollywood actresses with Singh, with an ease only the latter could command.
That was still not the high point in the career of Amar Singh who could be credited with making the entire political fraternity aware of sting operations through audio and visual tapes.
His political influence
Although there are many claimants for the India-US nuclear deal, especially then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, if there was one person who could claim credit for seeing it through, it was Amar Singh — for whatever he is worth to his critics.
It was the so-called ‘corporate fixer’ who turned out to be the architect of the Manmohan Singh government’s victory in the trust vote, after the four Left parties withdrew support.
Prithviraj Chavan, the former Maharashtra chief minister who was then a minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office and also a powerful AICC general secretary, would be spending hours in the evening at the party headquarters, unwilling to go home. Once, this correspondent happened to visit the Congress headquarters at 10 pm and was pleasantly surprised to see Chavan sitting in his asbestos-roofed office.
“What’s happening? What are you doing here?” the correspondent asked. “What can I do? Amar Singh has been sitting in my house since 6 pm. I don’t know where else to go,” responded Chavan.
The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) was then looking into a disproportionate assets case against Mulayam Singh Yadav. Chavan, as MoS, PMO, was then in control of the CBI.
The political revival that wasn’t meant to be
There was no getting away from Amar Singh, though — if only his kidney hadn’t failed him, which eventually led to his death Saturday.
His political fortune had started dipping after Akhilesh Yadav took control of the SP. That was when his kidneys also started giving him troubles. Fighting on two fronts, Amar Singh did try to revive his political fortune, floating his own party and then unsuccessfully contesting on the Rashtriya Lok Dal ticket in the 2014 general elections.
In 2016, he managed to re-enter the Rajya Sabha with support from the SP but his old friends were getting weary day by day — an ageing Mulayam Singh Yadav losing control over the party, Subrata Roy getting entangled in court cases, Anil Ambani becoming a shadow of an industrialist that he was, and Amitabh Bachchan reduced to a superstar of yesteryears.
At one of the parties when Amar Singh was in Delhi in between his trips to the Singapore hospital, he told a former Congress MP: “Tum log mujhe fixer samajhte ho par yehi rajniti hai (You guys think I am a fixer but this is what politics is).” The former parliamentarian was appreciative of his candidness. “Sahi hi keh raha tha (What he was saying was right),” he told this correspondent later.
Well, the so-called ‘corporate fixer’ would have been happy to see Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s condolences to his family Saturday, saying that he was “an energetic figure” who was known for his friendships across many spheres of life.
It was his friendship across political, corporate and Bollywood spheres that made Amar Singh what he was. There are few politicians who wouldn’t vie for the same today.