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.”
“For the first ten days,” Josh said, “we had no funds, and industrialists came from as far as Calcutta, calling to ask for appointments to hand over election contributions. But he refused to meet them.”
“One day I told him, ‘Doctor Sahib, we’re losing the election. We have no money,’” Josh said. “Everyone [in the party] said they’ll give money,” Singh replied, but Josh regretfully informed him that further inquiries had demonstrated the emptiness of these promises. Josh told Singh the campaign needed at least 10 million. “Councillor kahta hai mujhe paisa do. [Councillors are asking for money.] Kya karein? Minimum do lakh toh mangte hain na? [What can we do? They ask for 200,000 minimum, right?] Office kholna hai, jo log ayenge, unko chai pilana hai, car chahiye to go this way, to go that way, flags also, banners. So all these things require money,” Josh said. “But he was a different man. He had never dealt with money. So ultimately, one day, I sat with Doctor Sahib, his wife and his daughter Daman. He said, ‘I will not meet anyone.’ I said, Doctor Sahib, we’ll lose the election—money bina, paise ke bina—we’ll lose without money.”