On Monday, when Mamata Banerjee landed at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi, to protest against the increase in diesel price, cap on subsidised liquefied petroleum gas and foreign direct investment in retail, she knew she had to make an impact.
Having pulled the plug on the UPA government on these very issues barely two weeks ago, the fire-breathing West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief could not let her rally be a damp squib. Had it been Kolkata, her one call would have brought thousands out on the streets. But, she knew Delhi was a different ball game. TMC’s Rajya Sabha MP Kanwar Deep Singh, the man she put in charge of that crucial rally, made sure that his leader wasn’t disappointed.
That day, standing by Banerjee’s side in a spotless white kurta, the businessman-politician who’d managed to bring in busloads of supporters from Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, established himself as a politician to reckon with. That’s a lot to say, given that Singh is, by conventional standards, a political novice who entered the arena barely two years ago, initially as a Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) MP. But then, given his track record, this might just be another leg in his long and eventful journey.
There’s no one way to describe Singh. Besides being an MP from Jharkhand, he’s the chairman emeritus of Alchemist — a business conglomerate with assets worth Rs 10,000 crore, that has interests in education, health care, real estate, hospitality, food processing, aviation, pharmaceuticals, steel, tea and more. For a man who started out in 1981 at the age of 19 with the Rs 20,000 that he’d borrowed to set up a trading business in Mumbai, Singh knows an opportunity when he sees one.
In 1988, when the Punjab government started rolling out the red carpet for investors to win their confidence after the bloody spell of militancy in the state, Singh returned to his hometown, Chandigarh, and set up his first factory in the Chanalon industrial area (in Mohali district). He started by producing steel wire mesh and link fencing for the rapidly growing industrial and poultry businesses in the state. Floriculture, tea gardens, aviation and pharmaceuticals followed and by 1994, his group was listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange.
More was to follow. In 2008, the Alchemist group ventured into food processing and set up Republic of Chicken – a first of its kind vertically-integrated quick-food service business. He would grow maze which would be processed into chicken feed at his factories. The chicken came from his hatcheries and poultry farms. Not a single step of the business was outsourced. He even owned a chicken processing plant and the final produce was sold from his outlets. “I started from scratch 27 years ago. People kept coming and the caravan only got stronger,” Singh had told Business Standard some years ago.
It was only a matter of time before the jet-setting Singh’s interests branched out into areas other than business. Politics was the natural next step for the man known to travel in personal jets and hobnob with VIPs. The opportunity came in 2010 when he made it to the Rajya Sabha as a Jharkhand Mukti Morcha MP. But months later, he dumped JMM to join hands with Banerjee. Singh had learnt early that when opportunity knocks, don’t keep it waiting.
Banerjee, a local satrap with national ambitions, sees him as her ticket to the North of the country. So Singh, the political novice, has been made party in charge of North India (Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, and the Union Territory of Chandigarh).
The party has set foot into Himachal Pradesh and Haryana by launching membership drives in these states. In Himachal Pradesh, where any serious contest has always been between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, Singh is now busy selecting candidates for the forthcoming elections. He does not want to go for a tie-up and the party plans to contest in all the assembly constituencies. Singh believes that because TMC is fighting for the cause of farmers, the party’s presence in the North can play a vital role in improving their lot.
With politics taking up all his time, last month Singh relinquished his position as chairman of Alchemist. But the family remains very much a part of the business. Singh’s 23-year-old son, Karan Deep Singh, is now executive chairman of the group.