The Rise And Fall Of Amar Singh
In the 1983 film Zelig, Woody Allen (who also wrote and directed the movie) plays the eponymous hero; a man who manages somehow to know everyone (from F Scott Fitzgerald to Adolf Hitler) and who turns up at every important event. The film is a mockumentary, which is to say that it is made to look like a documentary with shots of the fictional Zelig inserted into actual footage of real events.
I first met Amar Singh around four years after I saw the movie and in my mind, Amar Singh was always the Indian Zelig: a man who managed to work his way into any situation of consequence and to stand shoulder to shoulder with any important person he saw.
I first met Amar Singh after I moved to Calcutta in 1986. He was no big deal then. Though he was a Rajput, his twin claims to fame were his association with the city’s prosperous Marwari community and his friendship with Bengal Congress leaders.
As he was neither much of a businessman nor a politician of any great consequence, he was already punching much above his weight. He could get the city’s richest men --- the Birlas, the Goenkas, and others --- on the phone and became involved, at a high level, in the feuds that characterized the Bengal Congress of that era. (He was pro-Subrata Mukherjee, anti-Mamata Banerjee and so on.)
He also understood the media. He would turn up at the ABP office, where I then worked, escorting visiting notables. He brought Dr. Karan Singh to see us. He came again with Veer Bahadur Singh who was then (if I remember correctly) Telecom Minister. Amar Singh was hardly the only local politician to accompany national biggies on their visits to Calcutta. But what made him different was that he demanded almost as much attention as the visitor he was escorting, inserting himself into every conversation and holding forth at length. Interrupt him and you risked offending the important visitor so most of us heard him out politely.
In a few years, Amar Singh had established a presence in Delhi as well. When Jaya and Amitabh Bachchan came to Calcutta for the premiere of Agneepath in 1990, Amar Singh attached himself to Jaya Bachchan whom he had helped with a Children’s Film Festival in Delhi. (At the time Jaya was Chairperson of the Children’s Film Society.) He was not yet a friend of Amitabh’s but because he popped up, Zelig-like, in all the photos, he came off to the general public as a close friend of all the Bachchans.
The following year, when Chandra Shekhar was Prime Minister, Amar Singh who knew the PM a little, performed what would become a classic Amar Singh maneuver. He told Chandra Shekhar that he would introduce him to Amitabh Bachchan, who was not only a legend but was also of immediate consequence to Chandra Shekhar because his government was dependent on Congress support and Bachchan was Rajiv Gandhi’s close friend.
To Bachchan, Singh said that Chandra Shekhar was like a brother to him and he, Amar Singh, would personally ensure that any problems that had been created for the Bachchans by the predecessor VP Singh- government would disappear.
For years afterwards, Amar Singh would tell the story of how he personally carried the government file relating to a case against the Bachchans around till Chandra Shekhar agreed to sign it and close the case.
“Amitji may have been a friend of Rajiv Gandhi’s but it was Amar Singh who got the files signed and the case disposed off,” Amar Singh would boost.
This got him nowhere with Rajiv who turned down Amar Singh’s request for a Congress ticket for the 1991 election and refused to even meet him despite Amitabh’s urging. But it certainly endeared him to Amitabh and by 1992, the two men were extremely close and spoke to each other on the phone every single day.
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In his later years, after the Bachchans had thrown him out, Amar Singh would complain bitterly that Amitabh was never sufficiently grateful for all the things that he had done for him. And certainly there is no doubt that during the crucial phase when Bachchan’s ABCL had collapsed, leaving debts of hundreds of crores, Amar Singh helped raise the funds required to get the debts settled.
But equally, there is no doubt that Amar Singh gained much more from the association than he admitted. His career advanced within the Samajwadi Party because he was able to deliver the Bachchans whenever Mulayam Singh Yadav needed them. He gained entry to political circles that would never have allowed him in by promising to bring Amitabh along. And though the Bachchans treated him with extraordinary respect and deference, Amar Singh made it a point to gratuitously inform people that Amitabh would come to the airport to receive him when he visited Mumbai and that he had organized the weddings of both the Bachchan children, exercising total control over the guest list.
Nobody really knows what went wrong with that relationship --- I only have Amar Singh’s version which was so poisonously anti-Bachchan as to lack all credibility --- but while it lasted, there is no doubt that Singh became the closest friend Amitabh had ever had, especially after the split between the Bachchan brothers.
Did Amar Singh precipitate the split? He said various things at various times so it is hard to be certain. But there is no doubt that nearly everywhere Singh went, there were family issues. He was central to the split between Mulayam and his son Akhilesh. He was openly hostile to Mukesh Ambani and an active warrior for the Anil Ambani camp when the brothers fought. And when the Bajajs had a problem, he turned up there as well, Zelig-like.
By the end of his time in the limelight, Amar Singh had either fallen out with or moved away from every powerful person he was once close too. The parting with the Bachchans was bitter. He ceased to be a figure of any consequence in UP politics after Akhilesh kicked him out of the SP, though he tried very hard but fruitlessly to get somewhere with the BJP.
He was openly attacking Anil Ambani in interviews which meant that the parting could not have been cordial. His attempts to suck up to Mukesh Ambani (“I made a mistake by behaving badly with Mukeshbhai” etc.) were rebuffed. Subroto Roy of Sahara whose planes and helicopters Amar Singh flew around in during the glory days told a TV interviewer that he thought Amar Singh had now become so arrogant that his feet hardly touched the ground.
The story of his fall may not be surprising: any moth that flies too close to the flame always risks going up in smoke. But the more remarkable story is the one of his rise. I saw him at fairly close quarters for over 30 years and I still can’t figure out how he managed to fly so high and get so far.
Some of the explanations that I have heard from people who knew him make some sense. Yes, he was a perfect conduit between business and industry with an ability to fix deals, get projects cleared and raise election funding. But there are others who can do that too. So it is not enough of an explanation for his remarkable rise.
Some of his success was probably influence-peddling. As he did with Chandra Shekhar and Amitabh Bachchan way back in 1991, he knew how to trade in contacts and to fling names around. In the heyday of the Mulayam government, he used to brag that his house filled up every morning with important figures (including civil servants) all looking for favours. Every favour handed out was an IOU that he banked.
When HD Deve Gowda was Prime Minister, Amar Singh, who said he had arranged election financing for Gowda when he was just a Karnataka politician, would turn up at Race Course Road early in the morning and park himself there. Anyone who came to meet the Prime Minister would first have to reckon with Amar Singh.
But much of his success had to do with his own drive, his own confidence and his ability to become the master of any situation. Often when he was with his star-friends, with top industrialists or even his political masters, it was hard to tell who was the star or the boss and who was the lesser figure.
When he went with Mulayam to meet the President of India or such allies as Sonia Gandhi, Amar Singh was the one who took the chair nearest the host and led the conversation. Top industrialists were often reduced to inarticulate, blathering wrecks while Amar Singh took charge.
But none of this quite captures the secret of Amar Singh’s success. How did he inveigle himself so successfully into the life of the notoriously private Bachchan family that they gave him his own room in their house?. Why did Anil Ambani, a smart, savvy and confident businessman, let Amar Singh pose as his alter-ego? Why did Mulayam let Amar Singh become his Svengali?
I don’t think anyone has ever been able to answer these questions. Nor can anyone explain what finally went so wrong. Why did nearly all of Amar Singh’s friends turn their backs on him at roughly the same time?
The last time I met him was in his huge new villa where he gave me a bitter interview about his ex-friends. He was excited to be the subject of a full-length interview, an increasingly rare occurrence towards the end of his life, and insisted on showing me around his palatial new house.
When we got to his private cinema, he wanted to play a part of a song sequence from a Hindi movie on his huge screen.”You will be surprised by how good the sound is,” he bragged.
But the system wouldn’t work. No picture would play. Amar Singh asked someone to fix it. The man tried but had no success.
Amar Singh got angrier and angrier. “Aaj kuchch nahin chal raha hai!” he complained in exasperation and rage.
And of course, he was right.
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