HERE IS AN ebullient Amar Singh, shepherding the Bachchan family at a media event where they had turned out to watch Baby B Abhishek shine. There is an enraged Amar Singh, prompting Amitabh Bachchan to take offence at how he had been described in an article as a power broker. And then there’s a quieter, more reflective man, at the very exclusive Chambers at Delhi’s Taj Mansingh, recalling how the 2010 kidney transplant had changed his life, made him susceptible to infection and made it impossible for him to savour his meals. He was a shadow of his former self but as quick to emotion and singing an appropriate Hindi film song.
Anyone who has been around in Lutyens’ Delhi long enough has a story to tell about Amar Singh. Born an outsider, in Kolkata, he owned the city with a swagger all his own, that took him from a liaison officer for Vam Organics for the Bhartias to becoming the man who famously bailed Bachchan out of bankruptcy by connecting him with yet another outsider looking for a place on the high table, Subrata Roy of Sahara. But while Roy ran a business that promised potential profits to many, Amar Singh had only one asset to sell—his undying loyalty.
This quality took him to becoming Mulayam Singh Yadav’s closest advisor as the Samajwadi Pary supremo negotiated the new world of defence deals and corporate skulduggery that was worlds away from even the murky caste politics of Uttar Pradesh. In a world where provincial power had its first encounter with partying elites, Amar Singh became his friend, philosopher, guide. Slowly and steadily Amar Singh, the power broker from Burrabazar, was able to stitch together an alliance of politics, big business and Bollywood that would manifest itself in the epic acronym, created and popularised by himself: Triple A, Amar, Akbar, Anthony, aka Amar Singh, Amitabh Bachchan and Anil Ambani, bookended by Roy and Yadav.
This alliance took him to places he always dreamed of, from rubbing shoulders with Australian media mogul Kerry Packer and the best and brightest at Delhi’s Ashoka Hotel in 2000 to hosting a banquet in Lucknow in honour of Mulayam Singh Yadav in 2005 attended by no less than former US President Bill Clinton. Amar Singh was a warrior, ready to take on anyone. It could be actor Shah Rukh Khan who tried to resolve a dispute between Amar Singh and the organisers at a film awards show in Dubai in 2004 over not being given front-row seats. It could be fellow Samajwadi Party member Azam Khan who he felt was trying to steer party control from under Mulayam’s nose. But he was also available to help, whether it was a cash-strapped Boney Kapoor for whom he got financing from Roy or even merely to turn up at a book release function in memory of glam pal Sunanda Pushkar at a day’s notice.
His passing away is the end of an era. The Age of Modi doesn’t need power brokers or fixers, a word he loathed. In this New India, it’s not who you know that matters, but what you know. Striking covert deals in the age of constant surveillance, by the state or social media, is almost impossible in an era where Prime Minister Narendra Modi is his own best connecter, whether it is walking hand-in-hand in Denver with Donald Trump or shaking hands with Mark Zuckerberg.
The entire environment has changed. The Ambanis have come together, at least for public consumption, the Bachchans let their work speak for them, Roy has been on parole since 2017 and Mulayam Singh Yadav is struggling for survival in Yogi Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh.
Amar Singh’s finest hour may well have had the seeds of his eventual downfall. In 2008, his deal-making saw the Samajwadi Party backing the UPA Government on the nuclear deal and saving the day. But this caused the cash for votes scandal, where essentially a sting operation carried out by the BJP to trap the Congress and Amar Singh got caught on tape. Amar Singh eventually went to prison for this and this was when most of his friends dropped him.
Born an outsider, in Kolkata, he owned the city with a swagger all his own, that took him from a liaison officer for Vam Organics for the Bhartias to becoming the man who famously bailed Bachchan out of bankruptcy by connecting him with yet another outsider looking for a place on the high table, Subrata Roy of Sahara
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Herein lay Amar Singh’s greatest tragedy, his inability to distinguish himself from those he helped. The first rule of doing favours for the powerful is to not assume they will be indebted to you forever. You can be a privileged guest at the high table but you can never be a member. This was one of his cardinal mistakes, expecting Jaya Bachchan to follow him when he was expelled from the Samajwadi Party or expect that his bold face buddies would visit him in jail.
He realised this as much, but too late. In an interview given in 2013, Amar Singh said: ‘The Big Man’s syndrome is that they always think they are obliging you. They think that by having dinner with you, they have honoured you. They eat your food but won’t appreciate it. They will say things like, “there was too much sugar in your sweet dish, it has given me diabetes or the salt was strong, my blood pressure will haunt me. Life is a big teacher. It has taught me one lesson that these so-called big people, like Ambani and Bachchan, feel that they are obliging you, and giving you mileage by allowing you an opportunity to serve them.”’
The socialist socialite was never too far away from the headlines, even if he often created them himself. Whether it was his carelessness in getting caught on tape, discussing intimate details with Bollywood starlets, or in constantly carping about the Bachchans and how they had let him down, there was never a moment when he was not playing the hero in his own private movie fantasy. He also made the mistake of assuming a political lobbyist could easily make it to the next level of mass leader. As his struggles to set up an independent party with actor and sometime MP Jayaprada showed, the wall between a backroom behind-the-scenes worker and a mass politician is almost as impenetrable as that between the master and servant. Keeper of secrets, advisor to the famous, a fearsome enemy to have, a man who helped many stars stay afloat and brought many others down to earth, Amar Singh will be remembered for epitomising the age of excess—of coalition politics, business turbulence and Bollywood’s neediness of cash to maintain the flash.