Amar Singh, national general secretary of the Samajwadi Party, talks about why Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s yatra may not make a difference for the party in UP, and predicts that the BSP may side with the BJP after the 2017 elections
Why Amar Singh?
A polarising figure with strong networking skills, Amar Singh has once again proved himself the ultimate survivor by making a return to the SP fold, months before the UP polls. Despite strong opposition against his return from CM Akhilesh Yadav and senior SP leader Ramgopal Yadav, Amar Singh is back with full backing of SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav. In August, Singh issued a statement saying those close to Mulayam were being “insulted” in the party and he was being made to sit on back benches in the Rajya Sabha
ANAND MISHRA: Some days ago, you went to Kerala and donated Rs 62 lakh to Mata Amritanandamayi on her 62nd birthday. Is Amar Singh turning spiritual? Are you losing interest in politics?
I have not lost my faith in politics. Life has given me a reality check. You see, life is about len-den (transaction) and prasangikta (relevance). It’s the coordination of relevance and destiny that makes you the person you are.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: What is your relevance to the first family of Uttar Pradesh?
What is my relevance to Manmohan Singh? After the death of (former president A P J Abdul) Kalam, Manmohan Singh paid a glowing tribute to Kalam and said, ‘I approached Amar Singh for saving my government (when the UPA government headed by Singh faced a vote of confidence in July 2008 over the nuclear deal)’. I had asked Manmohanji how the nuclear deal would be in the nation’s interest, and then told him I would go to Kalam and ask him. I was a fringe player (in the Samajwadi Party) and Manmohan was the prime minister, and he said he made that request to me. So what is my relevance to Manmohan Singh despite the fact that I was not in the Congress? Relevance is what you are capable of doing and what you can deliver. I am not ashamed or embarrassed about providing that service. So one of the best things I could do was facilitating that nuclear deal for this country. (After the meeting with Kalam, the Samajwadi Party came on board and the UPA won the vote of confidence.)
ANAND MISHRA: But after the nuclear deal, you found yourself out of the SP and you returned only in 2016. What was your experience during the six years you were out of the party and without power?
At a personal level, it was the best experience of my life. Because all the weathercocks perished. Between 1996 and 2009, I had played a vital role in the formation of all the non-Congress and non-BJP governments. It was not my glory, it was the reflected glory of certain developments. But when this reflected glory lasts that long, for 13-14 years, you often misunderstand it for your glory. The honeymoon with the so-called axis of power was far too long. So I became quite used to a certain pattern of life — sidekicks and sycophant friends who would say ‘you are the greatest’, and so on. It’s not often that you come across people who are harsh in their dealing with you. So if somebody says that I am a fixer, I welcome his opinion too.
COOMI KAPOOR: Why is it that your detractors feel that every time you join a party, you create problems within the party?
I don’t have an answer to this. My so-called detractors also say that the head of the family is Mulayam Singh Yadav and his word is final. Now that he has already clarified and spoken, I don’t want to speak beyond that.
ANAND MISHRA: How are your relations with Akhilesh Yadav?
My relations with the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh are very cordial. They are cordial from my end because he is Mulayam Singh Yadav’s son. And if I like Mulayam Singhji, then I will like his son. For instance, I have two daughters, Drishti and Disha — whether they like me or not, I will like them. I am forced to like them. So I am forced to liking and loving Akhilesh Yadav as well. He is free to say anything about me. And I am free to say anything (about him) as well, but due to the emotional attachment I have with Mulayam Singhji, and since Akhilesh is his offspring, I have held my tongue.
SHEELA BHATT: Akhilesh has been saying that he won’t let any outsider interfere in party affairs. Who is this ‘outsider’?
Ask him. A senior leader from the Samajwadi Party has said in no uncertain terms that whoever is in the party, ‘dal ke andar’, is not an outsider. But like an old gramophone record, your needle is stuck on a statement that’s sensational. So even if Mulayam Singh Yadav gives a statement or the SP state president (Shivpal Yadav) gives a statement saying there is no outsider, there is no discussion on that. It is our misfortune that controversial statements become news, but non-controversial ones don’t. When the cash-for-vote scandal happened, I was chargesheeted. Every newspaper and channel in the country got their breaking news. But when I was given relief by the Supreme Court, no newspaper printed it… Which is why I maintain my distance from the media. You must have seen how, throughout this scandal (of infighting within the SP), people kept talking from one end, but I remained silent. The power of silence cannot be matched by words.
ANAND MISHRA: Those who believe that your return created problems within the Samajwadi family also say that you created a rift in the Bachchan family, among the Gandhis and also the Ambanis.
As for the Bachchans, as long as Amitabh was close to Ajitabh (Amitabh’s brother), no one could come between them. After they fell apart and Amitabh went broke, that’s when I got close to him. Even today, they are not together, and I have nothing to do with Amitabh anymore. I came into Amitabh’s life when his house was being auctioned; I went there to take nothing. Amitabh has said this on record: ‘Had it not been for Amar Singh, I would have been driving a taxi in Mumbai’.
But my mistake is that I am extremely reactionary. When I feel wronged by someone, I do not forget it and I don’t let it go. I am an aggressively reactionary person, this is my fault and my mistake. In the Amitabh Bachchan matter, no matter what he did to me or said about me, I should have remained silent. But TV channels kept screaming… (Adolf Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph) Goebbels had a theory: ‘If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth’. This was completely used on me.
SHEELA BHATT: When you talk of Amitabh Bachchan, there is a pain that resonates.
Look, I’ve decided on one thing: forget whoever is no longer with you. The times that have passed cannot be brought back. I’ve given 20 years of my life to (the Bachchan family). At times, I’ve put their children, Abhishek and Shweta, ahead of my own two daughters. I gave my time to them when their ship was sinking. My friendship with Amitabh Bachchan was at a time when even his brother Ajitabh was not with him. And then you say that you can see the pain in me (when I talk of him). I can’t even show my pain? I can’t even show criticism? I am human, not God.
SHEELA BHATT: Do you think Hillary Clinton will win the US presidential elections? US presidential nominee Donald Trump had alleged that the Clinton Foundation had received funds in 2008 from you and from the Confederation of Indian Industry to seek support for the Indo-US nuclear deal. What happened to that case?
This case that you’re talking about is a figment of your imagination. Which court in the world has this case been filed in? Secondly, if there is such a thing, issue a notice to Hillary Clinton and try arresting her and get a statement from her.
ASHUTOSH BHARDWAJ: Do you think that in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP will get some sort of advantage from the surgical strikes against Pakistan?
Initially, the Modi wave was a tsunami. Surely, he is among the country’s most popular leaders. But he is no longer a tsunami because people’s expectations are endless and so are the country’s problems. All his good work has been spoilt by controversies such as ghar wapsi. Despite that, I would say the biggest problem the BJP faces in UP is the lack of a mass leader. There hasn’t been one since the days of Kalyan Singh.
ANAND MISHRA: When Mulayam Singh Yadav sent you that six-line handwritten letter appointing you party general secretary last month, he asked two things of you: to strengthen the party and to play a major role in the UP elections. How do you intend to do that in a fractured party?
Many people don’t understand Mulayam Singhji. He prefers wrestling, say, to cricket and football. As long as the leadership of the SP was with him, he always got the numbers — never as low as five (in the 2014 general elections).
ASHUTOSH BHARDWAJ: Critics of the SP say it hasn’t been able to shake off its image of being a party of goons. Have you worked to improve this image?
Look at our Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadavji — his face is that of an educated and gentle person. Even his enemies can’t say it is an image of goons and thugs. Akhilesh Yadav is clean, young and educated. I am not saying it because he is Mulayam Singh Yadav’s son. He made a public comment against me (Akhilesh remark about ‘outsiders’ was seen as directed at Amar Singh), but despite that, I will speak the truth.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: Rahul Gandhi is campaigning in UP, conducting khaat sabhas. Do you think the Congress is receiving some traction there?
I started getting to know Rahul Gandhi a little late, but now I know him. Initially, my contact was only with Soniaji, and a lot with Priyankaji, but not with Rahulji. He is not a pragmatic politician; he is an idealist. He doesn’t compromise on his idealism. The reason behind this, I think, is that he is not greedy for power because he has seen the glory of power up close. When that happens, you withdraw and do something out of the ordinary. It is possible that he is exploring this with these khaat sabhas and padyatras. A pragmatic politician would look at the vote bank, like Amit Shah does. He found Omprakash Rajbhar (for the 2017 polls, the BJP has allied with Rajbhar’s Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, an outfit with influence among backward and Dalit voters in eastern UP). He also found Anupriya Patel (Apna Dal). So Amit Shah thinks, now that there are Patel votes and Rajbhar votes, if he adds these small numbers up, it will lead to something big.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: Do you think the Congress will benefit from what Rahul is doing?
See the biggest challenge is that Rahul will leave after what he does, but who has the knowledge to understand and continue that work? (Congress’s UP chief) Raj Babbarji has been a fellow politician. I have seen very few hardworking men like him. But the efforts of Rahul Gandhi and the hard work of Raj Babbar need a face like Mulayam Singh’s. The SP and BSP have big names in Mulayam Singh and Mayawati. Neither the Congress nor the BJP has a face that is even remotely popular as theirs. In a state like Uttar Pradesh, you need a personality like Mulayam Singh who has the experience and capacity to take everybody together. Even Mayawatiji doesn’t have that reach. Either she doesn’t meet everyone or people don’t meet her. Even at this age, (Mulayam) meets party workers from morning to evening, remembers villagers by their names… even Akhilesh doesn’t have this capacity. He has just started out.
ASHUTOSH BHARDWAJ: Which party, according to you, is the most prepared on the ground for the elections?
The Samajwadi Party. I am saying this without bias. Because posts and tickets are not sold in the party. I am not saying that they are sold in other parties.
ASHUTOSH BHARDWAJ: How do you think the Muslims will vote in UP?
Muslims are very sensitive and clever voters. Their first priority will be to go with any party that can defeat the BJP. So maybe they like Rahul Gandhi, maybe they even go to his khaat sabha in large numbers. But… if you look at the crowd and estimate that so many Muslims came, you would be confused. In spite of all the khaat sabhas, the Congress’s cadre strength is weak. Look at what happened to Owaisi in Bihar (Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM lost all the six seats it contested).
SRIJANA MITRA DAS: What about the Dalit votes? Mayawati seems to be working to capitalise on the Dalit protests. In comparison, the SP is nowhere to be seen. Do you see the BSP putting up a fight?
Let me tell you, any one community is not good enough to win a battle. So that’s why the BSP talks about social formula and has Satish Chandra (BSP general secretary) to talk about Brahman bhaichara, thinking that along with Dalits, if they get Brahmin votes, then this political cocktail will sustain them. But unfortunately, barring Dalits, no other community is strongly behind Mayawati. Whereas in the case of Mulayam Singh, because of his personal contacts and his outreach… You may say the SP is a party of Yadavs, but I am not a Yadav. So if Mayawati is able to expand her base, then definitely, she will be a challenge. With her present base, she cannot be diminished, she will always be there. If you look at her past record, had the BJP not supported her, the personality called Mayawati wouldn’t have existed. The absolute truth is that the BJP sided with Mayawati not once, not twice, but thrice, to stop the political rise of the Samajwadi Party and Mulayam Singh. And it may happen again.
COOMI KAPOOR: Amar Singhji, how would you describe your relationship with Sonia Gandhi? You had a lot of problems with her in the past. In 1999, you persuaded Mulayam Singhji not to support her government which she was going to form. Later, she snubbed you when the UPA came to power in 2004.
First of all, let me tell you that Mulayam Singh made me who I am, not the other way round. So I did not persuade him not to support Sonia Gandhi. Surjeet (then CPM general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet) had far greater influence over Mulayam Singh than I did. It won’t be prudent on my part to spill the beans of what transpired then, but I can tell you one thing — I’m not saying it authoritatively, but there was enough hint that Jayalalithaaji definitely told Mulayam Singhji that if you make up your mind, if you head a coalition as prime minister… that will be good. Anyway, Mulayam Singh is not a person who can be guided by anyone, not his brother, not his son, he is guided by his own conviction.