A Maverick Made Good

Amar Singh has resigned from the Samajwadi Party but his political and financial clout is far from finished

Amar Singh, Mulayam Singh Yadav (centre) and Ram Vilas Paswan (left) during an election campaign rally in Buxar, Bihar in April 2009. AP IMAGES/PRASHANT RAVI
01 February, 2010

THE OLD ORDER IS GIVING WAY to a new one. On the day that Jyoti Basu passed away in Kolkata, bringing to an end an era in Indian politics, Mulayam Singh Yadav accepted the resignation of Amar Singh as general secretary of the Samajwadi Party (SP), finally signalling a parting of ways between the two leaders who have guided the SP in recent years.

On his part, Amar Singh, who is never at a loss for words (which makes for good copy), said, “From now, I will be a Samajwadi, not a Mulayamwadi.”

His cryptic statement gave an insight into why Amar Singh may have sought to distance himself from Mulayam and from the party in which he enjoyed a clout unparalleled in regional outfits. A political wag quipped, “Had he been a Yadav, he would not have lasted as long as he did.”

Amar Singh has described the present situation as the ‘interval’ of the show; only one act of the play is over, and the second half is yet to roll.

In some ways, Amar Singh had become even more of a public face of the SP than Mulayam Singh Yadav himself. He was its fundraiser, its spokesperson on any and every issue, its poll-planning strategist, its provider of glamour. He even managed to glamourise the street-fighting Mulayam, persuading him to host parties in Delhi’s five-star hotels for the capital’s chatterati, where an ill-at-ease Mulayam could be seen receiving his corporate and Bollywood guests.

It took ten days after Amar Singh offered to resign for Mulayam to finally send off a letter to him accepting it with a “heavy heart.” Mulayam said that he had held out for so many days in the hope that Amar Singh would change his mind.

There are two views on why Amar Singh chose to distance himself from Mulayam Singh. The first explanation is the more obvious one - that the wily Thakur felt humiliated after the allegations by Mulayam’s family members, particularly Mulayam’s cousin, Ram Gopal Yadav, that the SP had lost ground in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls because of Amar Singh.

It was Amar Singh who was credited with having brought Kalyan Singh into the Samajwadi Party for the second time, before the 2009 Lok Sabha election. But this did not lead to the expected consolidation of the backward castes, only to the gravitation of Muslims towards the Congress.

For some years now, several of Mulayam’s family members and his erstwhile socialist colleagues have been unhappy with Amar Singh’s growing clout and the hold he seemed to exercise over ‘Netaji.’ Mulayam’s family saw red when Amar Singh blamed them for their ‘complacency’ and ‘over-confidence’ in the Firozabad by-poll, from where Mulayam’s daughter-in-law Dimple lost in what was considered the party’s pocketborough to SP rebel Raj Babbar.

There are others who believe that Amar Singh is deliberately distancing himself from Mulayam in order to curry favour with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati because of the legal cases arraigned against him. It was he who had first expressed dissatisfaction with his SP colleagues when he returned from Singapore after medical treatment there. He was peeved that Mulayam had come to Singapore to see him only once, and that other SP leaders had absented themselves altogether.

Clearly, the Mulayam-Amar spat is going to help the Congress in UP, because Amar Singh can be expected not to take things lying down but to make the going difficult for the SP, whether by embarrassing the party in the media or by fielding rebel candidates. Amar Singh will not just be another ordinary worker of the SP, even though he has cited health reasons for quitting the positions he held in the party.

This is not to say that he will join the Congress, although he has enjoyed a special relation with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ever since he bailed out the government on the Indo-US nuclear deal in July 2008, with the 39 SP members of parliament standing behind the prime minister when the Left had withdrawn support to the United Progressive Alliance coalition government.

On the other hand, there is no underplaying the tensions in his relations with Congress president Sonia Gandhi after he had gone uninvited to 10 Janpath in 2004. Only last week, Amar Singh had publicly said that he had thrice requested Ahmed Patel, Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary, that he wanted to call on her but that there had been no response from the Congress.

There is also speculation about Amar Singh joining the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). But there is bound to be stiff resistance from Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel to any such move, who is not likely to allow someone to usurp the number two position in the NCP, which is what Amar Singh will try to do.

The possibility of Amar Singh’s joining the Trinamool Congress is not being ruled out either. It is being said that Mamata Bannerjee could do with his services, poised as she is to make a serious bid for state power in the 2011 election in West Bengal.

Then, with all else pending – and if other parties view him as too loose a cannon to court – he always has the option of floating his own party, which too seems to be under consideration.

There was a time when, as one of the directors of a Birla-owned company, Amar Singh used to be seen walking behind Shobhana Bhartia, chairperson and editorial director of the newspaper, Hindustan Times. Behind the scenes, however, he would keep in touch with politicos of all shades of opinion and ideology. In fact, he made a special point of creating a network of Thakur leaders in all the parties.

But very soon, he had left Hindustan Times behind and carved out a political niche for himself. He cut his political teeth in the Congress. It was his proximity to Veer Bahadur Singh, then chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, that first brought him close to Mulayam Singh Yadav. Whenever he wanted to get away from the crowds and decide on party tickets, Mulayam Singh would use Amar Singh’s home.

Amar Singh’s meteoric rise is the story of a man initially referred to as nothing more than a ‘political fixer’ — a term he disliked whenever newspaper headlines called him one — but who soon compelled the political setup to do business with him. Before long, he had become invincible in a party that was a contender for power in the country’s largest state.

It used to be said that if Mulayam Singh made it as prime minister at the head of a Third Front government, Amar Singh might take over as chief minister of UP. Perhaps this political prognosis was his undoing; given the money he had or had access to, and the contact network he had established in virtually every party and in Bollywood, it pressed panic buttons in the SP.

Amar Singh may be viewed by many as a political upstart, but it will be difficult to wish him away, within or outside any party.