Home/ News / India/  Ahmed Patel: The only non-Gandhi who ruled the party without being in power

New Delhi: Days after the Maharashtra election results in October 2019, there was an informal discussion in the top circles of the Congress about the unthinkable. If the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Congress alliance joined hands with traditional rival Shiv Sena, they had the numbers to form the government but the suggestion could not be taken up formally because a go ahead from party chief Sonia Gandhi was out of the question. As weeks went by, the discussions began to fade, except in the realm of one leader.

“First Sharad Pawar met Sonia Gandhi, then Uddhav Thackeray reached out to her but in vain. With growing pressure, top Congress and NCP leaders including Pawar spoke to Ahmed Patel, the only person who everyone knew could resolve this. Patel agreed to convince CP (Congress president). He is known to have told her that the move was necessary to keep BJP out of power and bolstering the soft-Hindutva stand of the party. CP eventually agreed and the rest is history," a senior cabinet minister of Maharashtra said, requesting anonymity.

Patel breathed his last Wednesday morning after multiple organ failure and in his death the Congress has lost its only non-Gandhi leader who ruled the party without ever being in power or holding a ministerial position. Bringing Shiv Sena, one of Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) oldest allies, on board, is considered to be one of the biggest political coups by the opposition post 2014.

Senior Congress leaders feel Patel’s deft handling of the Maharashtra crisis, like countless others in the past, tells the tale of the kind of politician he was—a low-profile backroom strategist with unbridled power and access in the party. Patel managed to break an ally of the BJP that had stayed within NDA for 22 years before walking out of the ruling coalition.

From being an eight-time parliamentarian from Gujarat, treasurer of the Congress party, parliamentary secretary to former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and political secretary to Sonia Gandhi--Patel has donned many hats within the party. Over the last four decades, he had been a one-man army with stakes in all the key milestones including the win of Congress party in 2004, winning the no-confidence motion of 2008 and the return of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in 2009.

Patel is known to have played a key role in reaching out to allies during the dispute over the formation of Telangana, generating support for former president Pranab Mukherjee’s election to the top post and for support over passage of key bills in the Parliament during UPA’s tenure. He has handled internal turf wars for the Gandhi family like recently in Rajasthan and the fallout of a letter written by 23 leaders demanding systematic overhaul in party leadership.

“There is an urban legend that Ahmedbhai refused job offers from four prime ministers under the Congress regime. In a party where fortunes change every day, he was indispensable owing to his personalized rapport with everyone, single minded focus of delivering what the high command wanted and knowing exactly how most leaders within and outside the party functioned. Once the leadership took a decision, it was the final word for him even if he personally disagreed with it," a senior lawmaker and party functionary involved with Gujarat said requesting anonymity.

A soft-spoken man, Patel consciously maintained a low profile in public and is remembered by party leaders as the one with a beaming smile even amidst crisis situations. Endearingly referred to as “Babu" by his contemporaries or “Babubhai" as a mark of respect, Patel belonged to Bharuch in Gujarat. Leaders from the state recalled his love for playing cricket during college days at M S University in Baroda, a thing they said he missed doing most in the later stage of his life.

For a name which eventually became synonymous with power and influence, Patel, however, rose from the ranks. His political career started from the grassroots as president of a taluka panchayat. He went on to become one of the youngest Lok Sabha members in 1977 at the age of 26, with the encouragement of the then prime minister Indira Gandhi.

“When Rajiv Gandhi took over as PM in 1984, he appointed Arun Singh, Ahmed Patel and Oscar Fernandes as parliamentary secretaries to assist him. After Rajiv Gandhi’s demise in 1991, Patel for a transient phase lost his prominence but emerged stronger a year later when he got one of the highest number of votes during the party’s Tirupati session. Leaders were looking for an alternative minority face in the party. Once he started working directly with Sonia Gandhi and raising funds for the party, there was no looking back," a former general secretary of the party who worked closely with Patel for over three decades said, requesting anonymity. Tirupati Session of the Congress was a historic one as internal elections to fill top posts happened after a gap of several years.

While he worked the longest with Sonia Gandhi, inner circles of the party have been witness to his unflinching loyalty for Rajiv Gandhi even after the former prime minister’s demise. Towards the end of the second term of the UPA, rumour mills were abuzz that Patel and Rahul Gandhi did not get along well. Recalling one such incident, a party functionary said that debunking such claims Patel once told a group of young leaders that ‘Rahul Gandhi is the son of Rajiv Gandhi and no Congressman should ever forget that’.

Patel, a member of Congress Working Committee (CWC), won a dramatic Rajya Sabha election in 2017 from Gujarat. An year later, he was appointed treasurer of the Congress party by the then party president Rahul Gandhi just months ahead of the key Lok Sabha elections. Over the last few years however, Patel and some of his family members have been under the scanner of the Enforcement Directorate (ED) over allegations of money laundering--a charge that he and the party had denied, saying it was a political witch-hunt.

Whether it was being the bridge between friendly parties such as Mulayam Singh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party, Lalu Prasad Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal, Shibu Soren-led Jharkhand Mukti Morcha or Pawar-led NCP, Patel has been the first point of contact for the Gandhi family in all such political relations and had good relations with several leaders from across the aisle in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

Despite being ill since October, Patel was closely involved with party’s work through his aides. “He is known to be a large-hearted man and often donates from his own pocket for different causes related to the party. I was surprised when an aide of his called me last month and informed Ahmed Patel wished to donate for my campaign," said a senior Congress MLA from Bihar who got elected in November.

There are several traits of Patel that different leaders point out. While a young leader from Gujarat said he ‘walks an extra mile’ to connect with people, another functionary from 24, Akbar Road, said he makes sure some of the smallest needs of an average party worker—say a new mobile phone—is taken care of by him. However, almost everyone who knew him point out that Patel’s distinctive nature became clear at the peak of UPA when despite not holding any government post, he continued to be more accessible and wield more power than most union ministers then.

“If there is one thing that best describes Ahmedbhai, it is that he was the complete anti-thesis of the ‘Congress culture’ which we have become infamous for. At the peak of UPA, most ministers and important figures would refuse to meet anyone after 8PM. The two exceptions were Ahmed Patel and Sharad Pawar. While Pawar would start meeting people at 8am, no matter what, Patel’s meetings would go on till 4am. Ahmed Patel ke darwaaze bandh hone ke kuch ghante baad, Pawar ke darwaazein khulte the (Pawar’s doors would open a few hours after Patel’s doors would shut)," a top party leader from Gujarat said, requesting anonymity.

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Updated: 25 Nov 2020, 08:39 AM IST
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