New Delhi: Once upon a time there was a political blockbuster called Amar Singh. Whenever there was a shortage of numbers, it was his job to ensure that there was a houseful. And the funny part was that he delivered, each and every time. He was also a media delight, as he lobbied with the “poweratti”, partied with the “glamouratti” and gossiped with the “chatterati”. Yet, despite having access to Mumbai, Delhi and Washington’s beautiful people, he died a very lonely death. In fact during the last decade or so, he was languishing on the sidelines of the very stage he used to strut around.
There is a reason for that. Men like Amar Singh come with a USP, and his particular brand of speciality was the strongest in the era of coalition politics, particularly during the UPA years when he famously saved the Manmohan Singh government during the nuclear deal. It was he who persuaded the Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav to support the Congress on this. That was also the point where his graph was at his highest and he counted Amitabh Bachchan, Anil Ambani, Sahara Shree amongst his closest friends. The photographs in his study also included a couple of him with the Clintons.
But it was not always like this. He began life as the son of a small-time trader. As he once told Aditi Phadnis (Political Editor, Business Standard) in an interview, “I was born and grew up in a three-room flat on 202 Chittaranjan Avenue. There were five of us and only one bathroom. I still remember the torture in the mornings when all of us used to queue outside the toilet. Since then I have an obsession with big bathrooms. Every room in my Greater Kailash House has a bathroom. I’ve seen those days; I left home because I didn’t want to continue with my father’s trading business. I had nothing. Proud fathers get suits stitched for their sons. I paid for my first suit myself, when I was 28.”
He journeyed from Kolkata to Delhi and his first political flirtation was with the Congress as he came in contact with the late Madhavrao Scindia. But when a Rajya Sabha seat failed to materialise, Amar Singh soon shifted to the Samajwadi Party, where he befriended SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav (sometime in the 1980s). The socialist met the socialite and learnt that party was both a noun and a verb. The rest of Mulayam’s party watched in dismay—this included son Akhilesh—as the SP neta became a regular fixture at Amar Singh’s over the top bashes. One comes to mind, a gala affair at the Ashoka Hotel (during the United Front government) that was thrown to celebrate the launch of his friend’s Sahara India TV and also Kerry Packer’s venture capitalist firm. From elephants to BMWs, all were made their way up the driveway, as did Ambani junior, Amitabh Bachchan and other Bollywood notables, the entire Parliament of Delhi including the then Congress president, Sitaram Kesri. It was also a statement that Amar Singh had arrived.
As Kaveree Bamzai, political columnist, points out, “No one straddled the worlds of politics, entertainment and big business like him. As India liberalised and its leaders struggled to acquire sophistication, he realised his unique niche in making the powerful comfortable with themselves, and overcome their social awkwardness with wordy bluster that put them at ease—whether it was Amitabh Bachchan, Anil Ambani or Mulayam Singh Yadav. He was their sharpshooter, their advisor, their organiser, their connector.”
But all good times come to an end and it was the “cash for votes” scandal that did him in. This was in 2008, when the BJP accused the Congress of “buying” 22 MPs to survive a no-confidence vote in Parliament. This was essentially a sting operation carried out by the BJP to trap the Congress and Amar Singh got caught on tape. He eventually went to prison for this and this was when most of his friends dropped him.
I caught up with him soon after, in 2010. He told me then, “Normally, people do politics for name, fame and money. I have had my share of all three. Perceptionally, I am at the lowest ebb of my socio-political graph but it is still much higher than from where I started.” And then added, “Success has many fathers but failure is a bastard. Today I am perceived to be a failure. Tomorrow, when I am settled, it will be different,” he shrugged. And then added philosophically, “For dawn to come, the dark night is essential because that is what shows who your real friends are and who are the weathercocks.”
By now Mulayam Singh Yadav had been persuaded by a rival camp in the SP—led by his cousin Ram Gopal Yadav and son Akhilesh—to dump Amar Singh. The Bachchans too had fallen out with him as had Anil Ambani and Sahara Shree. The much waited for dawn never came, though he kept reinventing himself: first he tried to float a Thakur-based caste outfit to fight elections in Uttar Pradesh, but that came a cropper. And during the last phase of his life, he moved across the political divide, sending out feelers to the Narendra Modi-led BJP. One of my last interviews with him had him defending demonetisation, and attacking Amitabh Bachchan. For one thing was a given, no matter what the topic of the interview, Amar Singh was sure to bring up the Bachchans.
He wore his bitterness on his sleeve and gave me a rather candid interview for NewsX in 2013, as he sat all alone in his posh bungalow in Lutyens Delhi. First he talked about Anil Ambani and said, “He was very close to me. Before I was arrested in the cash-for-vote, every Wednesday he used to come and have dinner with me and play with my daughters, he called them Princesses. He used to come to Delhi specially to have dinner with me. But when I was in jail there was no friend to furnish my bail bond of Rs 2.5 crore.” Then of course we talked about the Bachchans: “But these so called high and mighty including Mr Bachchan, whom I have helped in rainy days, were missing. I don’t want to sound arrogant and pompous but he himself has said this. He has said that had Amar Singh not been there I would have been driving a taxi. But such reactions are only to get good PR and show he is grateful since everyone knows what I did for him.”
At one point he had tried his hand at Bollywood and shot a film with Dimple Kapadia called Bombay Mittai, where he played the role of a singer who gets murdered. He told me later, “I died so beautifully in that film”.
Real life was not as beautiful. Finally, from his deathbed in Singapore, Amar Singh did reach out to Amitabh in an emotional video. But the much sought for reunion did not happen—at least not as publicly as the outreach. In the end, the 64-year-old Amar Singh was all alone. He shot to fame as the man who had many powerful friends. He died as the man who had lost many powerful friends.