DHOBI PACHHAD and kalajang. These were the two favourite moves of Brijbhushan Sharan Singh as his interest in wrestling took shape under mahant Baba Gyan Das of the Sagariya Patti in Hanuman Garhi, Ayodhya. The first is a quick move wherein the opponent is turned over, flung and pinned to the ground. The second entails hoisting up one’s opponent on one’s back and then flinging him on his back.
These are the very moves that have served Singh well in his political career. He is now in his sixth term as a Lok Sabha member. The first was in 1991. By the time the Lok Sabha elections of 1996 came, he was locked up in Tihar jail, on charges of sheltering the associates of gangster Dawood Ibrahim. There was speculation that he had helped Ibrahim’s relatives escape to Pakistan via Nepal. There was also buzz that he had sheltered gangs that had targeted Ibrahim’s family. “Singh stuck to the code of brotherhood of criminals,” said an old-time BJP member. “He offered help to all manner of criminals, no matter which end of the spectrum they were on.” None of the charges against Singh was proved.
Also, being in jail―on charges under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act―did little to dim Singh’s political prospects. The BJP offered a ticket to his wife, Ketki Devi. The sympathy for Singh, who had by then cultivated the image of a staunch hindutva leader (he was one of the accused in the Babri Masjid demolition case and had led a ‘Matra Raksha Rath Yatra’ against the activities of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence), translated into his wife polling 28,490 more votes than he had.
Balram Das of the Sagariya Patti has known Singh since 1986. He dismissed all charges against his former wrestling mate. “He has worked with passion since he was a student,” he said. “Under him, wrestling in India reached its pinnacle. He is solely responsible for turning it into a sport that can change wrestlers’ lives. Those who are making allegations against him have benefitted most under his chairmanship of the Wrestling Federation of India.”
But not all was well within Singh’s own household in Gonda (117km from Lucknow). In June 2004, his eldest son, Shakti, took his life with his father’s licenced pistol. The suicide note left behind accused Singh of not being a good father. There was also the charge that he, a rich man, had held back money from his four children.
While only the family knows if the death led to any introspection on Singh’s part, the politician himself chose to blame television serials. “You cannot always be friendly with your children…. Serials are poisoning children’s minds,” he had said.
When his father, Jagdamba Sharan Singh, was in hospital for 18 days, the son had paid him just one, half-hour visit.
Unexplained deaths seem to have surrounded Singh. In 2019, a constable posted at his official residence in Delhi shot himself. No suicide note was found.
A big factor that contributes to Singh’s power is the network of 29 educational institutions―schools and colleges―he has founded in his home district. These are the kind of institutions where successful exam performances are guaranteed, and where flying squads that make surprise checks to curb cheating never visit.
Yet, no one in Gonda openly accuses Singh of anything. This, despite the fact that in his 2019 affidavit filed before the Election Commission, Singh himself provided details of charges against him―these include dacoity, attempt to murder and disappearance of evidence.
Rakesh Verma, a Gonda-based social activist, said, “Singh is among the most domineering leaders of Purvanchal. I have never heard of any kind of allegations against his character. Maybe someone being beaten up or scolded, but these are internal matters. I find allegations of his behaviour towards women wrestlers incomprehensible. But then, politics is a game of ambition.”
Radhey Shyam Mishra, a former teacher from Kaiserganj (Singh’s constituency) said that he had watched Singh’s journey since 1979, when he became students’ union general secretary in the K.S. Saket P.G. College, Ayodhya, from where he earned a law degree.
“He has a knack of strengthening himself in any and every way,” said Mishra. “He is both a loyal friend and a dreadful enemy in politics. From the graduates of his educational institutes, he is cultivating an army of young supporters. Is that right or wrong? Whatever it might be, no one dares open his mouth.”
But some are willing to speak. Mayank Singh, a construction contractor who works in both Balrampur (Singh’s former constituency) and Gonda, said, “He is a dabbang (muscleman) who has his own ways of establishing his men in business and politics. I cannot divulge what I have seen. But infer from the fact that he got his son, Prateek, elected as MLA from Gonda when he misses no opportunity to say that he is in a party that does not promote nepotism. He may have been released from Tihar, but that is a black stain that will forever mark him.”
There are other stains that dot Singh’s life. In 1993, Pandit Singh, a Samajwadi Party leader, was shot. In 2004, Ghanshyam Shukla, a BJP leader died in an apparent accident, which his wife alleged was a murder. Singh’s hand was suspected in both. In the first, the MP-MLA court acquitted him; in the second, the CBI handed him a clean chit.
While most of Singh’s political career has been with the BJP, from 2008 to 2014 he was with the Samajwadi Party, on whose ticket he won his fourth term in Parliament. He then came down on the party, declaring Akhilesh Yadav the ‘Last king of the Sultanate of Mulayam Singh Yadav’. Not too long ago, he criticised the state government for its lack of flood preparedness, saying that public representatives had been reduced to being mere observers. It was a jibe at Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.
As in politics, so in his personal life, Singh gets full marks for enthusiasm. He lists listening to Bhojpuri music as one of his hobbies and has on occasion taken to the stage to perform. Given the opportunity, he also reels off Urdu shayari. Both are terribly off-key.
The latest charges might, however, throw him totally off-scale. And then, none of his favourite kushti manoeuvres might be able to save him.