Following his kidney transplant surgery nearly two months ago, Samajwadi Party General Secretary Amar Singh is recuperating in his plush apartment suite at Orchard Scotts Residences – located on prime real estate in the heart of Singapore City. Though the 53-year-old businessman- turned politician looks weak after the operation, his views on all things political remain as strong as ever. At the end of a two-anda- half hour interview to TEHELKA, a brooding Singh was whisked away for dinner by his “good friend” Amitabh Bachchan, who had cancelled all his shooting appointments to be with him. Excerpts from an interview with Divya Gupta:
What prompted you to invite Jaswant Singh to join the Samajwadi Party (SP)?
First of all, I did not invite him to join the party. This is media conjecture. Jaswant Singh is personally close to me despite his party affiliation and ideology. I told him that I feel sorry that for writing a book, which was not even read fully, he was expelled from the party. LK. Advani said even more laudable things for Jinnah, to quote his own former closest aide, Sudheendra Kulkarni. I had read that he will not leave active politics and told him that I am at his beck and call. He told me that I should become hail and hearty first and then we could discuss possibilities.
Why are you not inviting Arun Shourie into the SP fold? He’s also unhappy with the BJP leadership.
The question of inviting Arun Shourie does not arise. I respect him as a journalist and an intellectual. He is a close personal friend and I adore him. But he looks at the RSS as a political godfather that will clean out any impurity in the BJP and we [SP] are opposed to theocratic politics.
There are many who feel the SP was approaching Jaswant Singh because he was chairman of the PAC.
That is not correct at all. Whether he remains chairman of PAC or not, it doesn’t change my feelings. I am known for my consistency in relationships during low and high times.
With you in Singapore, how can Anil Ambani fight the battle against his brother, Mukesh?
Anil Ambani is a big boy. He can fight alone and doesn’t need a shoulder to cry on. I am a worrier of NTPC. There is an open alliance between the Congress and Mukesh Ambani and people cannot see that. Why does the government say that gas is a natural resource and should belong to the country when 99 percent goes to contractors. It’s not like they’re not capable of the know-how. It has three navratna companies. They can give the marketing to GAIL, power production to NTPC and ONGC can manage the gas fields. There is a great backward-forward natural integration. Let the brothers twiddle their thumbs. I don’t think I can help Anil anyway. I am not in government or powerful.
You mean if you were in government, you would have helped him?
I would have been fair. Right now, the UPA-led government and Mukesh Ambani are openly going against the Attorney General, the Supreme Court and the Comptroller and Auditor General of India.
You recently said that the “ultimate battle will be between the Congress and SP”. Clearly, there is a cold war going on between the two parties.
There is no cold war but there was some expectation from the Congress for the SP’s key role in saving their government.
‘Anil Ambani is a big boy and can fight alone. He doesn’t need a shoulder to cry on’
What was that expectation?
That any strategy to fight Mayawati will be a joint one. We hoped that it would not be a strategy that is against Mayawati but also against the SP silently. We [SP] made a proposal to the prime minister for a cooperation committee between the SP and Congress but he told us that how can there be a cooperation committee between just the SP and the Congress. The BSP will have to be kept in the loop. How will that go down in my party?
After the election results, when it was clear that the Congress does not need the SP, you have been kept at bay. Do you feel used by the Congress?
I feel used by the Congress but not by Sonia Gandhi. I still have faith in her. You have to remember one thing. The SP has been the embodiment of anti-Congressism. It was an amazing development in Indian politics that we supported the Congress. Otherwise there would have been no UPA government and no nuclear deal. At that point the saffron flag was being hoisted all over. Amarinder Singh, Virbhadra Singh, Digvijay Singh – all the rajas of the Congress – were losing ground. SM Krishna could not hold on to his magic in Karnataka. No one was good for the Congress then except the SP. So, naturally we wanted a little reciprocation.
Did you want a cabinet berth?
No. Not at all. Just the cooperation committee. But now we don’t even want that. The mood has been spoiled.
Many are convinced that the SP’s recent threats to withdraw support from the Congress-led UPA is to mount pressure so it changes its stance on the Ambani brothers’ dispute.
Nobody has threatened anyone. This is media sensationalism again. But yes, we do have to review our relationship with the Congress. The question of withdrawal does not arise but that doesn’t mean we should be taken for granted.
The public perception that you orchestrated the “cash-for-vote” episode in Parliament still persists.
Sudheendra Kulkarni hounded me and alleged that. But the parliamentary committee cleared my name. Jaswant Singh gave a statement clearing my name. The Congress believes in political barter – give and take. If I had said at that time that I will help in exchange for something, then maybe I would have been on the inside today. But Kulkarni’s induction into the present government is like adding fuel to fire. It shows heartlessness and ruthlessness. Even Shibu Soren is a better politician than me. He got offers of money from all sides. The prime minister included him in cabinet meetings while he was on bail.
‘Inducting Sudheendra Kulkarni into the UPA government is like adding fuel to fire’
What is your equation with Sonia Gandhi?
So far as I’m concerned, I’m not going to say anything ill against her all my life. Even Rahul has maintained a dignified silence. But I will not stand in a line just to get an appointment. This is not arrogance talking, it is self-esteem. I am not scared about Sonia Gandhi’s attitude. She’s a down-toearth, simple straightforward lady. But she does depend on a coterie and I failed to “manage the managers”. It was a strategic mistake. On an auspicious day, you cannot visit the goddess at Kalighat temple without active cooperation from the priests.
Rahul Gandhi’s major success was in UP where both the SP and the BSP lost seats. Will you concede that he is a more charismatic leader than you?
I don’t want to question Rahul’s charisma but on our part it was foolishness in UP. Rahul Gandhi will not spare any opportunity to kill my party there but I can’t blame the electorate for the confusion. We were campaigning together to create goodwill but there was no electoral agreement between us. We should have gone at them hammer and tong but went very easy on them. We didn’t even contest in Amethi.
You once said that the SP may be bitterly opposed to the BJP but is not happy over the rumblings within as the disintegration of the main opposition party will not augur well for the country? What did you mean?
A shattered and divided BJP, weak Left and marginalised Lalu, Paswan, Chautala, Chandrababu, Jayalalitha leaves only Navin Patnaik, Nitish Kumar, Mulayam Singh and Sharad Pawar as some force in the political diaspora. The aim of the Congress will be to gobble all of them on the theory of one-party rule as it is happening in China. We badly need the advent of a Jayaprakash Narayan to galvanise and unite whatever is left of the opposition. Mohan Bhagwat should also introspect on the Sangh’s theocratic politics in order to broaden the BJP’s electoral alliances. In most cases, Congress is having the last laugh because of the TINA factor – there is no alternative. But an unchecked Congress will become very bullish. I appreciate the PM’s recent statement that bickering in the main opposition party is not good for democracy.
You are unwell. Is there a second rung of leadership to take the SP’s mandate forward?
We’ll have to work very hard. Patterns in politics are changing. We need to give more opportunities to younger faces. If we don’t change and revise our strategy then we’ll face a crisis. As for me, up until the treatment of this ailment, it was party and politics first but it won’t be so anymore. I will not wait for a disgraceful exit.