From potatoes to the crores: a migrant’s journey to infamy

Kripashankar Singh was one of those who routinely arrived in Mumbai from Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh, seeking survival, in early 1970s but he was no ordinary migrant. Having found a toe-hold with a relative in Khar, a central suburb, he marshalled just enough capital to buy and lug only half a bagful of potatoes from the wholesale market and sell it to the commuters going back home.

His stake was outside the Khar station. He chose his commodity well: potatoes do not wilt like other vegetables do, if there were unsolds they could be brought back to sale the next day. His politics too has been akin to that, for he knew which horses among the politician to bet on, around whom he should hover and from who seek an upgrade in his career. He gathered rain cheques.

This man is today the centre of perhaps the biggest corruption case in Maharashtra involving unseen and obscene sums of money. The Bombay High Court has now asked the Mumbai Police Commissioner to personally lead the investigation into the charges of corruption and huge amassed wealth without any source of income. And since Kripashankar Singh is and was a ‘public servant’, the government’s permission has to be sought to seize his property.

Congress’ behind the scenes man in Maharashtra, Kripashankar Singh. Image courtesy

No doubt the story of how he accumulated and hoarded the wealth would be engrossing, if honestly probed, which can be presumed possible because the High Court is going to be watchful, having asked for a report by 19 April. Equally absorbing is the chronicle of his rise from a migrant-turned-vendor to a powerful politician to whom big builders and developers kowtowed.

From the narratives in the public domain, he, his wife, son and daughter were involved in the enrichment that has been listed in the PIL that led to the High Court action. The potatoes did not take the street-smart man far and he gave it up, finding a job as a machine operator in a drug company. On an evening, he and his closest friend, Harbans Singh, now a big-ticket developer-builder in Navi Mumbai, charted an interesting course for themselves.

Harbans Singh (no relative but thick as thieves) would take a job or turn to any business and Kripashankar would try his hand in politics. They had spotted the much-hated non-Marathi, especially the migrants from UP as their constituency.

If one did poorly, the other would step in to ensure they did not starve, depending on who did better. They were sure that either of them would crack Mumbai’s secrets. Both, it so happened did, one in the real estate business and the other in politics which invariably tend to blend. In this case, too, it happened. The leaked and published versions of the PIL against him shows that Kripashankar Singh has allegedly benefitted from builders: they paid the bills for his son’s wedding, gave him interest-free loans perhaps not intended to be returned.

Always clad in white, Kripashankar had two trademark features stamped on his face. One was the carefully nurtured stubble and the other, a Cheshire cat grin. Even when provoked, he never dropped it; it only grew more ingratiating. They can be seen in any photograph ever taken in which another person of bigger eminence than Kripashankar Singh featured. He was, he let the political bigwigs know, always at hand.

He would be the first to be seen, say when Sitaram Kesari, AICC treasurer, arrived at the airport and carry his bag for him. He would not only see him off but be waiting, as it were, hand and foot, 24×7 with him at the guest houses or hotels.

This apparently made things easier for him in rising in the political hierarchy. He hung around when Pratibha Patil, now President, then chief of the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee, which too paid off. He was made one of the general secretaries; he would be a good pipeline into the non-Marathi constituency when the Shiv Sena never gave up harping on the locals.

Kripashankar never made as much noise as Sanjay Nirupam protectively did for the Hindi-speaking migrants on shifting from the Sena, but remained active, choosing his crew carefully. That was why when despite the PIL against his properties allegedly acquired by questionable means, and their list as long as an arm, he was not asked to quit the Mumbai Pradesh Congress Committee’s presidentship.

It was thought divesting him of the party’s top job in Mumbai would be misread as admission of guilt on its trusted man and a let-down for the non-Marathi population which the party hoped to benefit from. In retrospect, neither helped.

Kripashankar Singh invested wisely and his investments were in politicians from New Delhi. So much so even before Mrs Sonia Gandhi got active in politics, he introduced Vilasrao Deshmukh to her. This too paid off when in 1999, Deshmukh headed the government; Kripashankar Singh was sworn-in Minister of State for Home. Then, he may have summoned, if he had wanted to, maybe he even did, Arup Patnaik, an IPS officer. Patnaik, now Commissioner of Police, has been charged with personally probing the case against the former minister.

Frequent trips to New Delhi, being seen with the leaders, dropping names, cultivating journalists there and in Mumbai, treating the handpicked ones to a bit of booze and a sumptuous dinner, smoothed his way up. He often told Mumbai’s journalists in the late 1980s that they had better learn from their counterparts in the national capital. They drove Maruti 800 cars, not necessarily owned by them; each had a godfather, according to the migrant-turned-politician. The import was clear.

He knew how to position himself vis-à-vis a visiting VIP, a local politician with power and on that strength, was always available for some help. He was on the high-level grapevine, always listening, cracking a joke, a raconteur who knew how to pepper them with enough nuggets indicating he knew the high and mighty, belonged to those charmed circles. If not in the corridors of Mantralaya, the man would be seen sipping tea, watch deals being made in a minister’s anteroom. He learnt a lot and quickly, and ended up with one term as an MLC and three as an MLA.

The political growth saw Kripashankar Singh being appointed an observer to Jharkhand where he befriended Madhu Koda and that apparently took him into a different orbit. His clout was so good that he was kept only a whisker away from being liable for action by Anti-Corruption Bureau because not all the listed gains by corruption could be proven. He was thus, despite his own claim, also kept a whisker away from a clean chit. Now the court’s orders could turn the scene around, he may have a lot to answer for.

That smile may tighten a bit, and could even disappear.


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