Once there was Amar Singh, collector of celebrities and connector of big businesses, Bollywood stars and politicians. He was the man who brought parivars together, before he infamously divided them. That was till he was replaced by the ultimate parivar. In the age of Narendra Modi, there is only one man who collects and connects at will, be it presidents of countries, corporates, movie icons or sports stars. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is his own dealmaker, whether it is with President Trump, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, big business tycoons, or Bollywood titans. With regional parties also choosing to stay within their states, and not much role for them in a national sphere dominated by the BJP, the space for regional satraps is shrinking. As is the role for their representatives in the Dilli Durbar.
But in post-liberalisation India, with the emergence of the new industrial elite out of new businesses like IT and telecom, Amar Singh was the master mediator, preceding Niira Radia. In the coalition politics of the first NDA and two UPA terms, he was able to swing critical political support from his friend Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party, whether it was for Manmohan Singh’s nuclear deal or for Pranab Mukherjee’s presidential candidacy. In the kitchen politics of Mumbai’s great parivars — the Ambanis and the Bachchans — he was invariably the shoulder to lean on for “Jaya bhabhi” or the shoulder from which a gun could be fired for “bade bhaiya” on his “harassment by IT authorities when UPA was in power”. Theirs was the Holy Trinity, Amar (Singh)/Amitabh (Bachchan)/Anil (Ambani) aided by Subroto Roy of the Sahara Group and promoted by Mulayam Singh Yadav. Mulayam suddenly found himself elevated straight from mofussil to global, with US President Bill Clinton attending a banquet in his honour in Lucknow in 2005.
Those were the ‘best days’ of his life
But that was then. Now the Ambanis have, at least on paper, come together, with Anil Ambani declaring he has “zero net worth“. The Bachchan dynasty still has only one shining star who steadfastly refuses to go gently into the good night. Subroto Roy, out on parole since 2017, is a shadow of his former ebullient self. Mulayam Singh Yadav, one of his biggest patrons, is no longer a force in Uttar Pradesh, even as son Akhilesh manfully tries to tackle Yogi Adityanath’s Hindutva hold.
No surprise then to see a frail, downbeat 64-year-old Amar Singh, speaking from his hospital bed in Singapore where he has gone for treatment for his kidney infection. He had a transplant at the same hospital 10 years ago and Bachchan famously took time off to be by his side. He is contrite, disappointed at his “bade bhaiya” but thankful that he (Bachchan) wished him on his father’s death anniversary. “Ishwar sabko unke karmon ke anusar nyaya denge,” says the man who was once the toast of the town.
He was also a permanent coloniser of controversial headlines. Take his arrest in 2008 for allegedly bribing three BJP MPs in the Lok Sabha to vote for the UPA government, which was facing a floor test in Parliament when the Left Front withdrew support to the Indo-US nuclear deal; the 2011 phone tapping controversy where among other things he was allegedly found making lewd remarks, and the “fix a judge” controversy where a CD showed Singh and Mulayam in conversation with Shanti Bhushan, suggesting that a judge could be bribed.
Things fell apart and Amar couldn’t hold
A Thakur from Burrabazar in north Kolkata whose father ran a hardware store, he first insinuated himself into KK Birla’s family as a liaison officer, then into Amitabh Bachchan’s affections, and finally into Mulayam Singh Yadav’s heart in 1996. He was a man who was admired for his witty repartee, usually alluding to either a famous song or a couplet, and feared for his proximity to the powerful. He could call up editors and stop stories, let bureaucrats know he knew their political bosses, and ensured he was always seen with a famous plus one, or indeed plus two, as the Triple-A Trio — Amar Singh, Anil Ambani and Amitabh Bachchan — were once inseparable, almost attached at the hip to Subroto Roy and Mulayam Singh Yadav. And then, it all came crumbling down. Amar Singh became Bachchan’s loudest critic and fell out with Mulayam Singh Yadav so spectacularly that he was thrown out of the party whose image in the capital he carefully tended to for over a decade.
He managed to acquire so much influence on Mulayam Singh Yadav, recalls veteran Lucknow-based journalist Sharat Pradhan, that he virtually became a de facto boss of the Samajwadi Party as well as its government in Uttar Pradesh between 2003 and 2007. “All that he was interested in was complete control over lucrative and influential appointments as also the allotment of industrial and commercial plots in NOIDA and NCR that have always been known as UP’s goldmines. When Akhilesh Yadav became CM in 2012 and began to assert himself and refused to take diktats from Amar, he began to run him down in the worst manner,” Pradhan told ThePrint.
He had become so influential in the Mulayam regime, recalls Pradhan, that he even manipulated entries in land revenue records of Barabanki district to get Amitabh Bachchan registered as a landowner so that he could call himself a “farmer”. Bachchan needed that certificate to justify ownership of agricultural land in Maharashtra. There was much controversy over the issue until Bachchan was compelled to surrender the Barabanki land.
Pradhan maintains that Amar Singh has always been a blatant opportunist. “He changes colours faster than a chameleon. I have seen how he would hover around the Bachchan family and speak on their behalf so that he could hog the spotlight. If Jaya Bachchan went to the Rajya Sabha on the Samajwadi plank, it was because Mulayam Singh Yadav stood to gain out of Bachchan’s association with the party. But Amar Singh would always make it a point to give the impression that it was his doing.”
In an interview given to The Sunday Guardian in 2013, Amar Singh says as much: ”The Big Man’s syndrome is that they always think they are obliging you. They think that by having dinner with you they have honoured you. They eat your food but won’t appreciate it. They will say things like, “there was too much sugar in your sweet dish, it has given me diabetes or the salt was strong, my blood pressure will haunt me. Life is a big teacher. It has taught me one lesson that these so-called big people like Ambani and Bachchan feel that they are obliging you, and giving you mileage by allowing you an opportunity to serve them.”
Pradhan says Amar Singh just could not digest the fact that the Bachchans needed him much less than he needed them. ”If he has decided to suddenly offer an apology to Bachchan, I am sure he has some axe to grind. He is one man who does not believe in doing anything without a vested interest.”
They don’t make middlemen like Amar Singh anymore. The first to come out of the shadows, Singh was very unapologetic, even proud, about what he was doing. Much of what he did, he did openly. So, it was an unapologetic ugliness of it all — the politics, the business, the lobbying — that visited Lutyens’ Delhi. We lived like that for a decade-and-a-half. And it was the same way things got done everywhere — in Delhi or Bombay or Lucknow.
If you had Amar Singh on your side, anything was possible, everything would get done. He was your speed dial to the rich and famous and he was always willing to help. In fact, he was very generous of the heart. And unlike Arun Jaitley, who only helped friends, Amar Singh helped everyone who went to him because he wanted to feel like a facilitator of your dreams, like a patron. In the sense of being unapologetic, he was the Hindi-speaking version of Suhel Seth. But infinitely more powerful than Suhel in his time.
Senior journalist Priya Sahgal, who has written extensively about Amar Singh, says though Amar/Anil/Amitabh broke up, there was no closure. It’s like with Rekha. One thing we always look for in an interview with Rekha is a mention of Amitabh Bachchan, a hint of endless longing for him. And that’s how it has become watching Amar Singh right now. Any interview he does, we look for signs of his unrequited love for the Bachchans.
Sahgal says: “There was no interview of his where he did not bring in Amitabh and Anil — but more Amitabh, much more of Amitabh — and lamented that he had wasted 20 years being friends with such an ‘ungrateful’ man. Amar Singh always claimed that he was ‘so over’ him but the fact that he kept bringing him up in every other sentence clearly showed he was not. And now, from his sickbed, he’s reaching out to his friend once again. In true Bollywood style, Amar Singh is holding his half of the friendship locket — will Amitabh land up with his matching half?”
We wait, minus the popcorn, even though the story has run its course and there is little room in New India for a socialist socialite and his celebrity pals.
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.