India’s best-known film personality’s business debts to be paid off? Amar Singh was at hand. A controversy to be generated and then defused? Amar Singh was at work before applications were invited. A government to be shepherded through a trust vote? Singh, again, working from the outside. The instinctive consultant was the first outlier who flamboyantly challenged contemporary Lutyens’ Delhi, and made himself indispensable to it. He ticked all the wrong boxes. Born in Azamgarh, which was later vilified for terrorism, educated in communist-ruled Kolkata, resident of the wholesale market district of Burrabazar, he didn’t belong in Lutyens’ Delhi.
But he was the man of the moment in post-liberalisation India, which was leaving behind the Hindu rate of growth and the agonising choice between buying an Ambassador or a Fiat. Politically, in the coalition era, Singh began to test the limits of choice. He was ahead of his time. Charged with bribing three BJP MPs, he was sent to judicial custody, though the financial trail was never established. Now, charges of buying legislators invite not the majesty of the law, but tired humour on social media. Singh also transformed the Samajwadi Party, which he joined in 1996. If Bollywood glamour headlines the party’s celebrations in Saifai, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s village, it is the legacy of its former general secretary, who was also expelled for a period.
Two archival news images illustrate his conflicted personality. In one, he stands beside Amitabh Bachchan, who holds up a blown-up flex cheque paying the dues of his company, ABCL. Singh, who may have drummed up the money, holds one corner of the flex, signalling ownership. The other shows Amar Singh’s sandals. Ordinary sandals, not the expensive footwear of Delhi’s politicians. He had taken them off before entering someone’s home, in the time-honoured manner of the ancients.