New Delhi: It was a chance encounter with Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Mulayam Singh Yadav on a flight 20 years ago that sparked the rise of Amar Singh.

The year was 1996, and Yadav had formed SP only four years earlier. H.D. Deve Gowda was prime minister, and Yadav, a key supporter of Gowda, was defence minister in the Union cabinet. Although Yadav had met Singh in Lucknow earlier, it was during this flight that the SP chief decided to make Singh the party’s general secretary. Singh formally joined SP in the same year.

Singh has remained the face of SP in Delhi’s power circles ever since, and has always been identified as a close confidant of Yadav, who later became Uttar Pradesh chief minister. Now, six years after his expulsion from SP, Singh is back in the political limelight.

“SP was a traditional party till 1996. The basic organizational network of SP was in rural and semi urban areas, but after Amar Singh joined in 1996, he brought glamour, political connections, Bollywood, network with big industrial houses and bling with him to the party. He managed to change the basic image of the party," said a senior SP leader based in Lucknow, who requested anonymity.

Yadav’s decision to nominate Singh as one of the seven candidates for the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday comes as a political resurrection of the 60-year-old master strategist of the SP, ahead of the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections.

A shrewd politician and a Bollywood socialite, Singh’s journey from the lanes of Burrabazzar in North Kolkata to the power corridors of Delhi and gradual exit from the scene is unmatched.

“There is one quality of Mulayam Singh Yadav which cannot be matched by any other politician. If a person has been with Mulayam Singh Yadav during his good and bad times, the SP chief doesn’t forget it. He doesn’t care if the public perception of the person is good or bad, but he will return the favour if he thinks the person has served him well. And Amar Singh is one such person who continues to remain very close to Mulayam Singh Yadav," the SP leader quoted above said.

Born in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh on 27 January 1956 to Harish Chandra Singh and Shail Kumari Singh, Singh spent his childhood in the trade hub of North Kolkata, Burrabazzar, where his family had moved to run its hardware business. Singh went to Khatri Vidyalaya, a government school in Kolkata and later joined Kolkata’s St. Xaviers College for higher education.

Singh’s first stint in politics happened in 1985 when he was assigned to look after UP chief minister Vir Bahadur Singh while he was in the city for a programme organised by the Thakur community of Kolkata. Impressed with Singh, the chief minister invited him to Lucknow. Quick to recognise the potential of the invitation, Singh shifted to Lucknow with his grandmother.

Mulayam Singh Yadav, who was then an outsider to Delhi’s power circles had met Singh at Vir Bahadur Singh’s residence and saw the merit of a man whose reach ranged from politicians and film sets to corporate houses. He happily welcomed Singh on board in 1996. The alliance was mutually beneficial and gave the businessman political heft.

Given the responsibility of being SP’s spokesperson in Delhi, Singh soon became the face of the party in the national capital and also rose to the position of No. 2 in SP, edging out veterans like Beni Prasad Verma, Raj Babbar and Mohammed Azam Khan, among others.

“Most of the SP leaders, including Ram Gopal Yadav, Mohammed Azam Khan and Shivpal Yadav may not be very pleased with the decision of Mulayam Singh. Typical of a regional party which is headed by a patriarch, the entire politics of the organization revolves around the patriarch. Amar Singh became the eyes and ears of Mulayam Singh Yadav and this made a lot of leaders jealous of him," the SP leader said.

However, it was in July 2008 that Singh rose to political prominence. When the Left parties withdrew support to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government over the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s civil nuclear deal with the US, Sonia Gandhi, who headed the coalition, sent out a Mayday call to Amar Singh and Mulayam Singh Yadav, who in turn happily obliged.

“I cannot say that Sonia Gandhi is my friend. Though it will also not be prudent to say that we are not friends. It will not be proper to say we are enemies," Singh was quoted in a report by News 18 dated 4 July 2008, a statement reflective of Singh’s tongue-in-cheek way of talking.

Singh’s 31-year-old political career has seen controversies and allegations of many hues.

Singh has time and again grabbed headlines over corruption charges -- whether it is the July 2008 cash-for-votes scam where a chargesheet was filed against him for allegedly bribing three Bharatiya Janata Party Lok Sabha MPs to vote for the UPA government which was facing a floor test in the parliament; the 2011 phone tapping controversy where taped phone conversations revealed Singh allegedly fixing deals with politicians, businessmen, bureaucrats and Bollywood celebrities; or the 2011 ‘fix-a-judge’ controversy where again a CD allegedly showed Singh and Mulayam Singh Yadav in conversation with former law minister Shanti Bhushan suggesting that a judge could be bribed for 4 crore for a desired court verdict.

In the cash-for-votes scam, he was arrested and sent to Tihar Jail. He was released in November 2013 by a Delhi court.

More recently, in 2015, US writer Peter Schweizer wrote in his book Clinton Cash that Singh donated between $1 million and $5 million in 2008 to the Clinton Foundation as the US Congress debated the landmark India-US civilian nuclear deal.

Friends and politicians who have worked closely with Singh call him a hardworking and resourceful person who has always had a political bent of mind. SP leader and Rajya Sabha member Kiranmoy Nanda who has known Singh since the time Singh was part of the Youth Congress in Kolkata, says that “Singh is and has always been a political person."

“Amar Singh is a very resourceful man and by that I not just mean monetarily, which obviously stands true. But even his relationship with the media which he handles so well, as well as his political understanding—all have helped Singh reach where he is today," he says.

According to Ramesh Dixit, a Lucknow-based political analyst, Singh has amicable relations with large corporate houses and politicians.

However, Singh’s political career saw a downward spiral after his expulsion from the SP following a fallout with Yadav in 2010.

He floated his own political party, the Rashtriya Lok Manch, in 2011, and unsuccessfully fielded a number of candidates in the 2012 assembly polls in the state. He tried to revive his career again in 2014, ahead of parliamentary elections, when he and former Bollywood star Jaya Prada joined Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) but failed again as Singh lost the Lok Sabha poll from the Fatehpur Sikri seat. Even efforts to approach Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi did not yield any result.

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