Amar chitra katha
When the history of contemporary Indian politics is written, Amar Singh will have a special place as arguably the first neta to bridge the gap between political and corporate India, and between Page 1 and Page 3. Tracking him on the 2004 election campaign was a revealing experience. Through the day, we were travelling across the dusty tracks of interior Uttar Pradesh as the Samajwadi Party leader addressed a series of well-attended Thakur samaj rallies. In the evening, we were in the cool comfort of his South Delhi residence where the guest list for dinner included a sprinkling of stars and corporate tycoons. As our camera recorded the private party, I asked Singh how he reconciled the role of neta by day and party animal by night. “I am not a hypocrite,” he shot back, with a familiar grin, “If Amitabh and Anil Ambani are my friends, why should I hide it from the world? If I play Holi with Shilpa Shetty, why should I be ashamed of it?”
Why indeed. From political gatecrasher to India’s Most Wanted, Amar Singh has come a long way. In the process, he has come to represent a new breed of Indian politicians who have redefined the conventional rules of the game: political clout is less and less about mass appeal and more about artful deal-making. He may not be a vote gathering politician like his ‘netaji’ Mulayam, may never contest a Lok Sabha seat, but he is still invaluable to a party like the Samajwadi Party.
Mulayam’s politics have been limited to the rough and tumble of the UP akhara. It is Singh who provides him an entry into the wider world of money and glamour. In a sense, he is a trend-setter. Today, almost every political party has its fair share of Amar Singhs: those who will not fight elections, but who are indispensable to their party bosses because of the range of their connections with big business, with a touch of Bollywood for good measure.
The newly-formed Samajwadi party-UPA partnership is, at one level, a straight business deal that has been cleverly marketed as being in the ‘national interest’. A family-owned company called the Samajwadi Party is in desperate trouble in its home state where a single ownership firm, the Bahujan Samaj Party, is determined to destroy its financial and political base.
Another more loosely controlled family company, the Indian National Congress, is in equal discomfort because its CEO has entered into a well considered agreement with a sovereign nation which he is now being forced to renege on because of trade union opposition from within. The only solution is to throw out the pesky trade union and tie up with a potential rival business house. If corporate mergers and acquisitions are played with hard-nosed business acumen, why should politics be any different?To an extent, the brazen opportunism of an Amar Singh only offers a mirror to a de-ideologised political class that is unwilling to look beyond naked self-interest. Hasn’t the Congress leadership been opportunistic in tying up with a party which only till weeks ago was Enemy No. 1? Haven’t the UPA’s allies winked at the arrangement because they are equally desperate to stave off elections at all costs? And can the BJP really claim to occupy the moral high ground when its leadership has been forced to confess to attempting to topple the Manmohan Singh government in an unseemly manner? And how can even the self-righteous Left justify being on the same side as the BJP when it maintains that the saffron outfit’s ‘communal’ agenda is the biggest threat to the nation? In the muck of Indian politics, there are no Mahatmas left any more.
Perhaps, the only difference is that Amar Singh has been a little more candid about the nature of his politics. The Samajwadi Party leader has few compunctions of being identified with a corporate group, but the fact is that there are many more of our politicians who are also batting for specific business interests, only they will not admit as much in public. In Parliament, questions are asked on behalf of specific industrial houses; in ministries, projects are cleared and decisions are taken to favour individual corporates; in the bureaucracy, secretaries are appointed because of their business affiliations. So, when Amar Singh virtually calls for the head of the Finance and Petroleum Minister, when he raises questions over spectrum allocation, when he demands a windfall tax on petroleum exports, he is only taking a public stance on a corporate war that others are siding with in private.
Nor is this necessarily unique to this country. Across the world, lobbyists work the corridors of power, peddling influence and networking the system. But whereas in the United States, for example, the role of the lobbyist has been legitimised, in India we are still reluctant to admit to their presence, preferring to see them as shadowy operators. What individuals like Amar Singh have done is remove the ‘nudge-nudge, wink-wink’ secrecy that surrounds the corporate-politician connection in the process of decision-making.
So, as an energetic Amar Singh rushes from the Prime Minister’s residence to Rashtrapati Bhavan, perhaps we need to acknowledge that his rise is only the result of the changing nature of politics. Politics is increasingly about fund-raising, mega deals and big money. And yet, while politics needs money, it must also be about ideas, about passion, about a vision for society, about a struggle for justice. That great reconciler, M.K. Gandhi, spent his days in Birla House and was known for his closeness to business houses, but his eye was fixed on his social and political mission. Only money power, without a sense of mission or greater purpose, will mean that public life will cease to be about the public.