After Singh entered the upper echelons of the Congress in the late 1990s, the party gave him a ticket to contest a Lok Sabha election in 1999 from South Delhi—a posh constituency of middle-class voters who had reaped great benefits from the liberalised economy. His challenger was an unseemly state-level BJP leader, VK Malhotra. “It was meant to be a cakewalk for Doctor Sahib, a very sure seat for the Congress,” said Harcharan Singh Josh, a local party leader who served as Singh’s campaign manager. “In the previous year’s state election, ten out of the fourteen assembly seats were won by the Congress MLAs. The Muslim and Sikh populations came to more than fifty percent of the constituency. And everyone was buying the foreign brands in the South-Ex market, brought to India by Doctor Sahib. Malhotra had jhero chance.”
But there were problems from the start. Singh was still an outsider in the party, a talented bureaucrat who had been swept into politics after his successes in the finance ministry, with neither aptitude nor appetite for the dark arts of campaigning. Sonia Gandhi had personally given Singh the ticket, but that hardly guaranteed him the support of the party’s cadres.
“The AICC [All India Congress Committee] gave us Rs 2 million, more than they paid for other constituencies,” Josh said. “But that wasn’t sufficient to keep the MLAs, municipal councillors and the party workers active. He did not know anything about these intrigues—he was having the impression that since the Congress party has given him the ticket, the MLAs and municipal councillors will all work together.”