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Ahmed Patel: The hand that ruled

Smita Gupta | Updated on December 01, 2020 Published on December 01, 2020

Eyes and ears: Ahmed Patel played a decisive role in persuading Sonia Gandhi not to accept the Prime Minister’s post in 2004   -  FILE IMAGE / SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

As her political secretary, Ahmed Patel turned Sonia Gandhi into a powerful and confident leader who could hold her own in virtually any setting

* At the time of his death on November 25, he had often been described as the most powerful man in the Congress

* Ahmed Patel was more than a combination of all the positions he held

* With his death, Sonia Gandhi stands weakened — and, with her, the Congress

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Just about 15 years ago, precious little was known about Ahmed Patel, the all-powerful Congress leader who died last week — at least among those outside political and journalistic circles. I was working for a magazine in 2005, and my editor had asked me to write a profile of Patel, who was then Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary. I began with the research, but I trawled the internet in vain: There were no interviews or profiles and very few stories that mentioned him.

I spoke to his colleagues in the party and then I called him, asking for an appointment. When he heard what I wanted to meet him for, he declined to be interviewed. But I hounded him — till he relented. On the appointed day, he was surprisingly expansive — and all charm. He talked at length for an hour, even agreeing to pose for the photographer. I even spotted a glimmer of vanity in him. He whipped out a comb and ran it through his hair!

He then dropped a bombshell: Nothing that he had said could be attributed to him, nor could I mention that we had met!

Nevertheless, the profile appeared, accompanied by a picture of Patel, dapper in a black kurta and white pyjamas, reclining in a chair on the lawns of his New Delhi residence at 23, Willingdon Crescent. That issue of the magazine sold like hot cakes — largely because everyone wanted to know more about the man who wanted to stay out of the limelight.

At the time of his death on November 25, he had often been described as the most powerful man in the Congress. His death, of complications related to Covid-19, marks the end of a critical chapter in the history of the Congress. For he was more than a combination of the positions he held most recently — political secretary to Sonia Gandhi for close to two decades, and then party treasurer, a post that he had held in the past too. He was, for much of this period, the brain behind the throne.

The rise

Noticed first by Indira Gandhi back in the early ’80s, he later became one of the three parliamentary secretaries in Rajiv Gandhi’s PMO. But he reached the pinnacle of his career in the years following the assumption of the party’s presidency by Sonia Gandhi in 1998.

He did not just play a key role in her taking on the leadership of the party by persuading other senior party members to back her, but, as her political secretary, transformed her into a powerful, confident leader who could hold her own in virtually any setting, national and international. She would become someone who would not just lead the Congress to electoral victories, adeptly stitching together alliances, but also command respect within the party as well as across the political firmament.

In the process of building up Sonia Gandhi, he, too, began to wield enormous power in the party. With his death, Sonia Gandhi stands weakened — and, with her, the Congress. Today, Rahul Gandhi may be making many of the key appointments in the party, but make no mistake, it is Sonia Gandhi who keeps the party together. If she gets weaker, so does the Congress. She understands that and knows the role that Patel played in her rise: In her tribute, she called him her “comrade”, “colleague” and “friend”.

To take a recent instance, of the 23 Congress leaders who wrote to Sonia Gandhi a few months ago expressing their unhappiness with the way the party was being run, there were those who were close to Patel. Among them were Ghulam Nabi Azad, Digvijaya Singh, Mukul Wasnik and Kapil Sibal. This, party sources say, indicated that he was in the know, even though he had advised them that this was not the best way to go about resolving differences with the high command. At the time of his death, he had been working on bringing about a rapprochement without a confrontation.

Indeed, that was Patel’s style — taking the middle path, bringing about a consensus and working across party lines to achieve the Congress’s goals. In recent times, he helped to work on a via media to bring chief minister Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot together to save the Rajasthan government. In Maharashtra, he played a stellar role in putting together a government with the Nationalist Congress Party and the Shiv Sena to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party out.

He was deeply secular, and a religious Muslim at that, but was always a practical politician. He knew that while operating in a polarised society, one had to mind one’s step. So while he ran the party and, during the 10 years of rule by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, was a key link between party and government, his advice was that the BJP should not be taken on aggressively on the communal question.

Patel had a huge brief, and worked long hours, rarely going to bed before 4 am and yet rising by 8.30 am. He played a pivotal role in the party, and yet preferred to work behind the scenes, and not be written about.

Why?, I’d asked him in that 2005 interview.

Why had he never accepted the post of a minister even though that offer had come his way on more than one occasion and why, unlike most politicians, did he shun publicity? As he opened up, he said something that I could not use in my profile then. He replied that when he took a decision and it led to action — and no one knew that he was behind it — it gave him a “high”.

That frank admission explained some of the stories that floated in the party about certain events that had been “manipulated” by Patel. It was said he was behind the appointment of certain public sector undertaking chairpersons who could help raise money for the party. But, on balance, he did far more good than harm because his loyalty and commitment to the party was absolute. He played a decisive role in Sonia Gandhi not accepting the Prime Minister’s post in 2004 — that would have made her vulnerable, he pointed out — and yet strengthening her by encouraging her to set up the National Advisory Council that gave her both a profile and helped her to put her stamp on policy in the social sector.

He may have operated in the shadows; and he was no political visionary. But he had the skills, personality and determination to manage the many contradictions and conflicting interests within a party that had grown unwieldy.

If he came up short, it was that Rahul Gandhi, encouraged by his coterie, felt he had too great an influence over his mother and he resented that. They clashed, for instance, on how to deal with Himanta Biswa Sarma, the Congress’s erstwhile number two in Assam. Rahul Gandhi’s writ ran in that encounter. Sarma quit to join the BJP and helped to undermine the Congress not just in Assam but across the Northeast.

Now that Rahul Gandhi does not have Patel to contend with, will he be able to replace him with someone as talented, selfless and committed to the party? It seems highly unlikely, given the choices he has made. Ahmed Patel is truly irreplaceable — and his death is a body blow to the Grand Old Party.

Smita Gupta is a Delhi-based political journalist

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Published on December 01, 2020
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