KNOWN AS a political spin doctor with his proximity to various influential circles, Amar Singh, 56, has been an unusual witness to upheavals that have plagued the country over the years. About the recent clean chit to Amitabh Bachchan in the Bofors case by former Swedish police chief Sten Lindstrom, Singh says it was political vendetta that had created the storm in the first place. In an interview with Ashish Khetan, he talks about the missing pieces in the controversies that haunted the Bachchans and the Gandhis.
EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
You had recently stated that it was not just the Congress, other political parties too had bailed out Amitabh Bachchan in the Bofors case. But even the former Swedish police chief doesn’t have anything adverse to say about Bachchan.
I don’t know why the Swedish police chief has come out with that statement now. I think, according to him, it cannot be proved that Rajiv Gandhi was an accused or had any involvement in the Bofors case. Then, the big news is not that Amitabh has received a clean chit, but that Rajiv Gandhi has been proven innocent.
There have been presumptions that Bachchan was used to save Rajiv Gandhi and that Bofors drove a wedge between Gandhi-Bachchan relations. Don’t you think that it’s true?
No, this is not true. Even an FIR was not registered against Amitabh. Nor was he chargesheeted. His was only a trial by media. He’s a superstar, after all.
Media trial and political maligning as well…
Who can escape political maligning these days? Amitabh was Rajiv’s friend. Both families would spend vacations in the Andamans, and he expects not to undergo a media trial? Four organisations held this trial: Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyhetter, India Abroad News Service (now IANS), Arun Shourie, who was editing Indian Express, and Chitra Subramaniam of The Hindu. It was clever of Amitabh to sue only IANS and Dagens Nyhetter for defamation; he even won the damages. He knew going against The Hindu or Indian Express wouldn’t work, given how courts in India function. But he sued those two in London (for defamation), where the court pronounced a quick verdict.
I remember Prakash Mehra, who was originally going to cast Dev Anand in Sharabi and Muqaddar ka Sikandar, had called Amitabh and me to his house and introduced us to Jain TV owner JK Jain, who also owned India Abroad News service. In my presence, Mehra requested Amitabh, “You have won the case, but please have some mercy and don’t claim the damages awarded by the court.” And Amitabh agreed. He didn’t claim the damages that he had won from the court.
If I’m not wrong, you had recently said that even the Third Front and the BJP helped Amitabh.
I didn’t say that. I said Yashwant Sinha, who wasn’t with the BJP at the time, helped him out. The BJP has always been extremely hostile towards Amitabh. After all, JK Jain was part of the BJP coterie. I remember ABVP workers storming the sets of Main Azaad Hoon, shouting slogans such as: “Gali gali mei shor hai, Amitabh Bachchan Bofors ka chor hai.” When ABCL (Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited) organised the Miss World contest in 1996, Uma Bharti led a protest with naked cutouts of Amitabh. He sought help from Advaniji (the BJP was in power at the time and Advani was No. 2 in the government), which was staunchly declined. This string of protests and the legal hassles that ensued led to the collapse of ABCL; it broke his back financially.
It was Shatrughan Sinha of the BJP who once even told (former prime minister) Chandra Shekhar that the Juhu Vile Parle Scheme Lane (where Bachchan lived) should be renamed Bofors Lane, and Pratiksha (Bachchan’s residence) should be called Fairfax. Chandra Shekhar’s response was, “I don’t care about the house or the lane. But Harivansh Rai Bachchan was my guru in Allahabad University. Where can I meet him?” I was present with Chandra Shekhar when Sinha made these remarks. Chandra Shekhar and I were visiting an old political associate at Juhu in Mumbai. I immediately called Amitabh, who happened to be just two blocks away. When he arrived, Chandra Shekhar asked, “Where is Bachchan sahab?” He was least interested in Amitabh, who replied, “Babuji is at home.” Chandra Shekhar and I then went to Amitabh’s house to meet Harivansh Rai Bachchan. Exactly 15 days after this, Chandra Shekhar became the prime minister. Jaya Bachchan would gush about Chandra Shekhar. She told me, “My husband may have made Mard, but the real mard in politics is Chandra Shekhar.” Then she told me that Arun Shourie had written about their Switzerland trip. The ED (Enforcement Directorate) had also lodged a case against them. She asked me if I could ask Chandra Shekhar, who was now the PM, to help the Bachchans in the ED case.
This is when FERA was in existence, a very stringent law…
Yes, and Amitabh was charged with the violation of Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA) because immediately after the Bofors scandal broke out, he went off to Switzerland with his family.
And because he travelled abroad soon after the Bofors saga, the media drew adverse inferences…
Yes. These four media horsemen went after him. That brought about a setback to the Gandhi-Bachchan relations too, cultivated from the times of Harivanshji and Indiraji– Tejiji. Sonia’s kanyadaan, too, happened from the Bachchan family house. To avoid being seen as partisan, Rajiv was forced to seek a probe.
So, according to you, a case was lodged because Rajiv Gandhi didn’t want to seem partisan?
Yes. I went to Switzerland to meet Jaya and Amitabh. Their kids were studying in Villars. During a stroll with Jaya, she told me there were some secrets about Amitabh that even she wasn’t privy to. She said that they’d come to Switzerland for their children’s education and not to seal the deal for Bofors or to stash away any kickbacks. I believed her. I even went to Villars, where the kids were studying. She requested me to put in a word to Chandra Shekhar. Someone close to their family even ridiculed me, saying if Rajiv Gandhi couldn’t do anything, what would Amar Singh be able to do?
Could you indicate who this might be?
It was Abhijeet Rajan. I confronted Amitabh about this and told him I wasn’t lobbying for him. It was then that I told Chandra Shekhar that Amitabh being the son of his guru, he should look into the matter. Chandra Shekhar referred the matter to Attorney General G Ramaswamy for a legal opinion. We decided to go to his office to enquire about the matter, and there we found Balasubramaniam (Balu), Mukesh Ambani’s Man Friday. Ramaswamy insisted on discussing the issue in front of Balu. The idea was to make a spectacle out of Amitabh. And then, he said he would not be able to help in the matter. He said it would be unethical on his part to give any opinion in the case because he had been a legal counsel to Amitabh in the past.
‘If the Bachchans claim they don’t know politics, then nobody in this country knows politics,’ says Singh
Then we informed the PM (Chandra Shekhar), who reprimanded us for going to Ramaswamy. He told us if we were right, we’d be saved. He then sent the file to then law minister Subramanian Swamy.
Swamy is so fond of RTI. If he accesses the file, he will still find Ramaswamy’s remarks on it. Swamy gave Bachchan a clean chit after this opinion. But Arun Jaitley was additional Solicitor General during VP Singh’s regime and the chief investigating officer for Bofors was Bhure Lal. They used to go to Sweden and Switzerland to carry out the probe. These two wanted to implicate Amitabh’s name in the Bofors case, as the Swedish police chief has now claimed. On Swamy’s positive opinion, a clean chit was issued by the then enforcement Director Sanghvi. But there was a big caveat. The clean chit wasn’t for Bofors; it was for FERA.
But his name wasn’t even there in the Bofors investigation…
True. At that time, Arun Jaitley even wrote to the FERA Board chairman Unni protesting Sanghvi’s clean chit order.
Because back then, attacking the Bachchans would mean attacking the Nehru-Gandhi family?
Definitely. Both Arun Nehru and Arun Jaitley would keep saying Amitabh is Rajiv Gandhi’s parrot. “Tote ki gardan todo toh deen ki gardan toote.” and it’s not true that Bofors drove a wedge between the two families. When Rajiv died, it was Amitabh who carried the news to Rahul Gandhi, who was abroad. I was at the airport to receive them. If you look at the photographs of the cremation, a lot of important people were missing: Vijaylakshmi Pandit’s daughters, Arun Nehru, the extended Nehru family. In fact, the fourth person to be present, after Sonia, Priyanka and Rahul, was Amitabh. When the Rajiv Gandhi Trust was established, the fourth trustee was Amitabh. Back then, 90 percent of Congressmen would not go to 10 Janpath for lobbying purposes. They’d go to Amitabh’s house in Gulmohar Park for that.
This is after Rajiv’s death?
Yes, Amitabh wasn’t even in politics then. But his statement that he doesn’t know politics is an outright falsity. If the Bachchans claim they don’t know politics, then who does?
In the past, Bachchan had on many occasions publicly expressed his gratitude to you; now we know it wasn’t just financial. Now as you say, if you hadn’t intervened, Chandra Shekhar would not have helped Amitabh in the FERA case. But what then was the real reason for the estrangement between the Bachchan and the Gandhis?
Even I don’t know the real reasons. Even when Rajiv was alive, Amitabh was closer to Sonia; she had stayed in their house after all. She considered Tejiji her godmother. In spite of the soured relations, Rahul went for Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s last rites. But I was never privy to what happened between the Gandhis and Bachchans. Whenever he was on the phone with 10 Janpath, I would leave the room. When they went off for vacations, Amitabh would never tell anyone where they were going. That was the only time Amitabh would not tell me about his whereabouts. Otherwise, he would keep me informed about his every move.
That’s why people assume you would know what went wrong between Sonia Gandhi and Amitabh? Because one thing that’s not a secret is that when ABCL was bankrupt, the only person to bail him out was Amar Singh.
I have two daughters — Disha and Drishti. If I do something for their welfare, would I like to take credit for it? That’s what I did for Abhishek, Shweta, Jaya and Amitabh. It’s a private matter. My kids once asked Aishwarya ‘bhabhi’ to come to their school. She didn’t come. When they asked my why, I had nothing to say. I just told them that she must have been busy. Later, I told them that maybe she didn’t come because you are not blood relatives. But when they grow older, turn 18, I’m going to tell them the truth. Yes, I do have a clue about what went wrong between the Gandhis and Bachchans but it’s too private a matter to be discussed in public.
What transpired between Amitabh and you? You used to say that there were three As in India — Amitabh, Anil Ambani and you. Now all three As are scattered?
People think it was Jaya’s decision to stay with the Samajwadi Party that led to a rift between Amitabh and me, but that’s not true.
Then what happened?
The real reason was a few things that Amitji said to me at Anil Ambani’s house, in the latter’s presence. He was shouting and screaming, and I told him that nobody had ever raised his voice with me, not even my father. I just said to him that I have never gained anything from him, except emotionally. I told him to take care of his health, and left. I wrote him a letter the next morning. And for the first time, I did not address him as a brother.
And with Anil Ambani?
I don’t want to reveal what happened between Anil Ambani and me. There used to be a time when Anil would accompany me to weddings when he didn’t have many political friends and didn’t know many people around. He even told me that had he (Amitabh) said those things to him in his own house, he would have walked out on him. I’ve given Mukesh Ambani many raw deals, deliberately, only for Anil. But today, I don’t even know where Anil lives.
Jaya had once told me in Goa that I should stop helping people so much. That I’m too sensitive, and that what I do for others, they would never do for me. So it’s not their fault; it’s my fault.
Did you expect Jaya to leave SP after you had left the party?
It wasn’t something as simple as leaving or forming a party. I viewed every relationship through the Bachchan family prism. When Karisma got engaged to abhishek, we considered her our bahu. When it was called off, they expected me to cold shoulder her. When the Bachchans got estranged from the Gandhis, I should have seen the truth. But I remained blind.
So, you have had no conversations with Amitabh in the past three years?
Not when I was in jail. But he was the first person to call me when I got out. Though, he called my wife. The difference between him and me is that when Abhishek was on the verge of being sent behind bars for assaulting an Indian Express photographer on the sets of Mujhe Kuch Kehna Hai, I left no stone unturned to bail him out. But then, even Mukesh Ambani asked me about my health recently, despite the fact that I’ve always taken Anil’s side.
When you were chairman of UP Development Council, you took Anil and a couple of other billionaires to UP saying you will bring industry to the state. And then Anil Ambani got the Dadri project. Now people will always think he got the land perhaps because he knew Amar Singh.
Now everyone knows Mulayam Singh, whether it’s Ashok Chaturvedi of Flex, Anil Ambani or Jaya Bachchan. No one knows Amar Singh. Failure is always a bastard. I’m a bastard today. The father of success is a man called Mulayam Singh.
Any interview with you will be incomplete if I don’t ask you the reason behind the bitter relationship between you and Mulayam Singh. What happened?
It was some kind of internal jealousy in the party. Mulayam Singh was always full of praises for me. He would sit in my house for hours. That was the relationship we shared. But after the Indo-US nuclear deal, cartoons appeared saying “Which Singh is king: Manmohan Singh or Amar Singh?” Mulayam Singh was never pro-Congress. He was cheesed off by my overt support for the Congress. And people like the late Janeshwar Mishra and Brijbhushan Tiwari thought I don’t do anything without taking money. That was a presumption. Then my American visit and revelations that I donated a huge amount to the Clintons again created a controversy in their ‘socialistic’ minds. They thought I had gained from the Congress by facilitating the nuclear deal. Mulayam Singh is a political animal. He treated me with his head. I treated him with my heart. Politics is not a game of the heart, but of the head.
Ashish Khetan is Editor, Investigations with Tehelka.