Ahmedabad: He is that rare Indian politician who shuns the limelight and the lure of TV cameras but still manages to remain one of the key players in one of India’s important political parties—the Congress.

But decades of loyalty to the Gandhi family will not ensure victory for 67-year-old Congress veteran Ahmed Patel in one of the toughest political battles of his life as he gears up for this week’s Rajya Sabha elections.

Patel, political secretary to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, is one of the few politicians who have worked closely with three generations of the Congress’ first family. He is often hailed as a key strategist behind the party’s victory in the 2004 and 2009 general elections.

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Patel’s political journey began when he became the youngest Parliamentarian to win a Lok Sabha seat from Bharuch in Gujarat in 1977, at the age of 26. His victory came against the grain, with the Congress party having been defeated by the Janata Party after Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. All the party’s top leaders, including Gandhi herself, had been defeated.

Today, 40 years on, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which has its roots in the Bharatiya Jan Sangh that was part of the Janata Party in 1977, is the country’s largest party.

And, led by its national president Amit Shah, the BJP is aiming to defeat Patel in his home state of Gujarat in Tuesday’s elections.

For Patel, who has been a Rajya Sabha member from Bharuch since 1993, a loss could hurt his personal reputation and even hamper the Congress’ prospects in the upcoming state assembly elections.

Patel is contesting to get re-nominated from the Gujarat Rajya Sabha seat for the fifth time but is faced with the challenge of getting the required number of votes. As many as six MLAs have quit the Gujarat Congress in the last few days and joined the BJP. This has reduced the party’s strength in Gujarat to 51 MLAs.

More may quit and there are fears that some Congress legislators might cross-vote—as they did in the recent presidential elections.

A low-profile politician who never accepted any ministerial positions at the centre, Patel was a trusted aide of late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. He has always preferred to be a backroom strategist, although from joint secretary to Parliamentary secretary and the all-powerful treasurer, Patel has donned many hats for the party.

On 20 May, Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah in a press conference credited Patel for bringing him to the party after he quit Janata Dal (Secular).

“Ahmedbhai’s biggest virtue is that he is very easy going and likes to keep a low profile. He has always emphasized on empowering youth of the country. During UPA rule, when there was a discussion in the party about farm loan waiver (about Rs72,000 crore) which was part of the party’s poll promises, some senior leaders suggested that it should be given partly and not all at once. To this, Ahmedbhai put his foot down firmly and said the poll promise must be kept and entire waiver should be given at one go," said Manish Doshi, a spokesperson for Gujarat Congress who was present at the meeting.

From Sonia Gandhi’s gatekeeper to the Congress party’s master strategist, Patel has had several titles bestowed on him over the years.

But it’s clear that the upcoming elections and the BJP’s attempts to unseat him have rattled Patel. On 2 August, he tweeted that the BJP was on an “unprecedented witch hunt" to win a Rajya Sabha seat. The unfolding drama has also put Patel in the spotlight, something he has worked hard to avoid.

Nikita Doval contributed to this story.

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