A Wily Thakur’s Changing Colours

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As he takes another gamble, Ashok Malik tracks the public record of the maverick Amar Singh

 

Photo: Shailendra Pandey

WHEN A prominent politician once asked Mulayam Singh Yadav what value Amar Singh brought to the Samajwadi Party (SP), the former wrestler mumbled: “Kharcha, parcha, charcha.” That translates to: money and resources; keeping us in the news (or newspapers); representing the party as its networker and information channel.

His semi-estranged political boss’ terse, description of Amar sums up his utility to the SP. It also indicates why Delhi’s bestknown political arriviste is almost indispensable to an avowedly socialist party.

After a week’s drama, with Amar announcing his resignation from all party posts and then disappearing to Dubai and London, Mulayam was forced to mollify him, and invite him to be chief guest at a cultural event in his native village of Saifai. Amar had conveyed his message. The man who controlled the SP’s cash flow left on the eve of a round of tough elections to the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Council. The SP is set for a drubbing. Part of the reason is it ran out of money.

With Sunjay Dutt withdrawing from the SP as well – and indicating he was only there because Amar was – the SP broke into a sweat. The Jayas – Jayapradha and Jaya Bachchan – the bevy of businessmen friends, from Anil Ambani to the Sahara family, the glamour quotient that the SP offered its voters (circus having long replaced socialism): all of this would be lost if Amar exited.

Every big politician needs a bagman – the polite expression is “representative in business and industry” – but the agent usually derives authority from the principal. If Amar walked away, why couldn’t Mulayam simply find a replacement?

The answer is two-fold. First, Mulayam is losing ground in UP. In the run up to the Assembly election of 2012, politics in the state is devolving into a two-horse race between Mayawati’s BSP and Rahul Gandhi’s Congress. The Muslim voter has deserted Mulayam. The SP has been left with its Lok Dal-era rump: Yadavs, upper OBCs and a wild bunch that can only loosely be described as socialist.

This is too fragmented a voter base to have any lasting impact. Indeed, in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the SP could get only three Yadavs elected: Mulayam, son Akhilesh and nephew Dharmendra. This speaks of the family-isation of the party, one of Amar’s complaints. To a larger degree, it represents the limitations of being a party of essentially one caste group.

Someday this may change, but it is unlikely to happen before 2012. For the moment, Mulayam has to run very hard to stay where he is. He has to persuade friendly businessmen to keep him afloat, do deals with other regional parties, enter into tactical alliances in Parliament, and be a vocal member of some sort of anti- Congress, non-Mayawati platform. He needs a gofer, somebody who can dart in and out of Delhi bungalows and Mumbai boardrooms, and ensure the SP has at least nuisance value. He needs Amar Singh.

The rebel realises this. “It’s very simple,” says an old SP hand, “what Amar is saying is if he funds this party, he should run it. The others should shut up.”

The “others” refers to Mulayam’s son, Akhilesh, and to the SP chief’s first cousin, Ramgopal Yadav. Akhilesh is heir apparent. He’s polite and impressive before journalists in Delhi, but an also-ran in the cow belt. Critics say he hardly travels and is not the barnstorming type. Grassroots campaigns and nights in remote hamlets: his father grew up on such stuff and at least one other dynast in another party is doing it. Akhilesh isn’t.

Also, while the media may go on about the “Lohiaite core” of the SP and of “socialists” uncomfortable with the “socialite”, much of this is exaggerated. Years in office have had a profoundly corrupting influence on the SP cadre and midranking functionaries.

Take the BJP in UP as an analogy. Till the early 1990s, upstanding political workers with a Sangh background could be seen riding bicycles. By the new millennium, many were driving Tata Sumos and doing land deals. To suggest this has not happened to Mulayam’s Lohia brigade is nonsense. Amar Singh is both an emblem of this transformation and also, in the past two weeks, the man holding a mirror to the party.

IT WASN’T always like this. Mulayam and Amar came together in the mid- 1990s, both self-identifying as underdogs. Mulayam felt his rural background and poor skills as an orator made him an outsider in Delhi politics and contributed to his being beaten to the prime minister’s job in 1996.

Amar has long had a chip on his shoulder about being a middle class boy, without reservoirs of family money or the social graces of the allegedly Beautiful People. As he never fails to tell interviewers, he is the sort of back-bencher the pretty girls who studied English literature in his college, Calcutta’s St Xavier’s, avoided. Now that he’s a somebody, they have to pay him attention. It’s an unusual motivation for a career as a politician; some would even call it sleazy.

Even so, for a fairly unprepossessing looker, Amar seems to pull in attractive women. It must be his brains. When Kerry Packer came to do business in India – Amar was said to have designed the television deal that turned out to be the biggest dud of the Australian tycoon’s career – the picture that stood out was of the Thakur from Azamgarh exchanging smiles and pleasantries with Packer’s blonde daughter-in-law, a former model who towered over him.

Three years ago, tapes purporting to be recordings of Amar Singh’s phone conversations were all over Delhi, a collateral product of corporate espionage it was murmured. A voice alleged to be Amar’s was in deep conversation with at least two sex symbols from the movies. More substantially, the tapes seemed to provide evidence of financial swindles.

Interestingly, the tapes have disappeared. There’s been no attempt to verify or conclusively debunk them. Nobody seems interested, not even the media. When it comes to Amar Singh, the Omerta – the Mafia code of silence – takes over.

Born to a trader family in Burrabazaar, the north Calcutta market that remains a massive centre of commerce in eastern India, Amar’s initial flirtation with politics was courtesy the Youth Congress. In 1985, Vir Bahadur Singh, a Rajput from Gorakhpur, became chief minister of UP and was invited to Calcutta for a community reception. Amar, whose Rajput family has its origins in Azamgarh – near Gorakhpur, in UP’s eastern badlands – was Vir Bahadur’s local hanger-on. Impressed by the 30-year-old, Vir Bahadur called Amar to Lucknow.

It was the golden age of crony socialism. Vir Bahadur helped Amar secure a loan under a scheme for “first generation entrepreneurs”, at an interest rate of one per cent. Amar’s early businesses ranged from a chemicals factory to a hydroelectricity plant in Karnataka that Deve Gowda helped him set up. They were not, however, his destiny. That lay elsewhere.

From Vir Bahadur, Amar moved to Madhavrao Scindia, becoming a member of the All-India Congress Committee from Madhya Pradesh. He joined the board of the Hindustan Times and was a member of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). A colleague at the CBFC was Jaya Bachchan and soon enough, he met her husband. When Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited went bankrupt in the 1990s, it was Amar who lobbied with a variety of financial institutions and with Doordarshan to help it out. Next, he was “brother” to Anil Ambani. The rest is notoriety.

What did Amar bring to Mulayam’s table? Regional politicians need that extra something to make it on the national stage. It could be the backing of Indian business, no-nonsense integrity or acceptability among peers as suitably non-threatening. Mulayam decided his extra something would be star appeal and schmoozing the rich and famous.

‘It’s very simple,’ says an old Samajwadi party hand, ‘what Amar Singh is saying is if he funds the sp, he should run it. The others should shut up’

Amar played Henry Higgins to Mulayam’s Eliza Doolittle. Take the Saifai Mahaotsav, the closing ceremony of which Amar may or may not attend on January 24. It began in 1995 as a rural cultural fair. Amar reinvented it. Amitabh and Sunjay Dutt, Akshay Kumar, even Celina Jaitley and Yana Gupta, or the junior Ambani and Kumaramangalam Birla for that matter: the Saifai Mahaotsav has had a series of high-profile guests. Almost all these people came because of Amar’s persuasion, not Mulayam’s charm.

When Mulayam was chief minister, Bill Clinton turned up at his Kalidas Marg residence in Lucknow and danced to folk music. Coincidentally, in December 2008 Amar was named as one of those who had donated between “$1-5 million” to the Clinton Foundation. Typically, nobody in the media persisted with questions about the source of the money.

The Clinton example is instructive. Whatever the efficacy of Amar’s methods, they are not without controversy. As chairman of the UP Development Council, he sought to make his state a magnet for Mumbai’s magnates. There’s little on the ground to establish success. To the contrary, many of Amar’s highprofile projects are under investigation. His sugar policy is said to have benefited only his friends. The cut-price allotment of hotel plots in Noida has resulted in accusations of sweetheart deals.

THE MULAYAM government acquired and leased out 5,000 acres to the Anil Ambani Group for a power plant in Dadri, just beyond Greater Noida. It invoked emergency powers that allowed it to so grab land from farmers for a “public purpose”. In December 2009, an Allahabad High Court judgement nullified the notification that led to the acquisition.

In July 2008, the SP rescued the UPA government and the India-US nuclear deal after the Left withdrew support. Amar was ready with a long list of demands and stories were planted about him becoming power or petroleum minister. In the end, he got nothing; the Congress dumped the SP. The “cash for votes” scandal and the allegations of payments to BJP and other defectors ended up at Amar’s door, literally.

When it comes to Amar Singh, the media shows scant interest in investigating him. a code of silence prevails

It’s not just politics. Amar can’t run away from the reputation that anything he does, he does at external bidding. He was once in the thick of cricket politics, even seeking to dethrone Jagmohan Dalmiya at the Rajasthan Club, an affiliate of the Cricket Association of Bengal and the seed of “Jaggu da’s” clout. He had clearly been put up by Dalmiya’s rivals who wanted to corner the cricket business.

In cricket, aviation and a dozen other fields, Amar’s proximity to the Sahara family has been commented on. It was first noticed in the 1996 general election, when he presented the SP with Raj Babbar as a candidate against Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Lucknow. It was a hard, nasty contest and there were accusations of malpractice sponsored by a corporate house. Predictably, police sleuths hit a wall.

Bluntly put, Amar is known and feared more than admired and respected. His very rise in Indian politics is a commentary on a larger, dystopian reality. What this also means is that, while Mulayam may be dependent on Amar, Amar too doesn’t have options. The Congress president doesn’t like him. His closest friend in the BJP ceased to be relevant at the end of 2009. Smaller parties such as the NCP have no need for him; they have their own deal-makers and he doesn’t bring votes.

The upshot? He’s going nowhere. Unfortunately, neither is the SP.

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