The rise and rise of Ahmed Bhai
In his silent, strategic backroom manoeuvring,Sonia Gandhi's powerful political secretary Ahmed Patel is often the mind behind the party and the government
Hardnews Bureau Delhi
Just a step behind Congress President Sonia Gandhi and a few steps ahead of other party leaders, he walks silently. Shunning limelight and staying away from an aggressive and intrusive media, Ahmed Patel, political secretary and advisor to the Congress president, wields a kind of influence never before seen in Indian politics. He is no MO Mathai, RK Dhawan or ML Fotedar. Patel is many things more besides being a messenger, interpreter of decisions (also, maladies), fund raiser, balancer of different interest groups in the Congress etcetera.
His ubiquitous hand was visible in the recent cabinet reshuffle, which seemed to defeat the very purpose for which it was done. His imprint has also been visible in practically all the major decisions that have been taken by the party - and a few by the government. Ahmed Bhai, as he is called in political circles, is also responsible for preserving the coalition and looking after, or at least conveying, the sensitivities of the allies to the Congress leadership and the prime minister.
This is a major job, which Ahmed Bhai performs stealthily and below the radar. It's not clear what skills he brings into play in negotiating these issues, but the fallout of such interventions in many cases is not really edifying. Many see his extra-constitutional presence as a major reason for the lack of freedom displayed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the running of the prime minister's office.
There is, in fact, a thriving industry in Delhi that keeps an eye on every move of Ahmed Bhai and also asks in bewilderment this question: "What makes him tick?"
The answer does not come easy even if you interact with all those who meet him very often and who may have benefited or suffered due to his intervention. "He is loyal and keeps his mouth shut," claims one such source. Others say that he is able to present the interest of the Congress president better, both within the organisation as well as to the allies.
This explanation is surprising, as Ahmed Bhai is not the most articulate of Congress leaders. He is reticent, laconic in his responses, and generally builds a mystique around his persona. He speaks only with persons he is comfortable with and conveys the quiet confidence of a person in command of the situation. He has supporters whom he looks after. Sometimes, when an unknown person springs from nowhere and gets a Rajya Sabha nomination or some other coveted government job, everyone knows that Ahmed Bhai has got his man a job.
Many of his detractors see him as an amoral deal-maker who engages in short-term arrangements that have hurt the party in different parts of the country. During the recent Congress plenary session in Burari, Delhi, there was seething rage against the leadership for not paying adequate attention to the party's grassroots interests. Partymen from UP, Tamil Nadu and other states complained, as usual, about the party president being kept in the dark about the affairs in their states. Congressmen from UP thought that the central leadership has been coy about attacking Mayawati as it might hurt the party in Parliament. Even Rahul Gandhi's views on this have been ignored, they claim.
Ahmed Bhai is a major proponent of the policy of "safety first for the government", which has seen the Congress making all kinds of compromises even when it meant looking the other way at major acts of corruption and scams. This, too, insiders feel, has badly hurt the party and the government.
Congress insiders blame this "safety first" policy for the shame and infamy that the UPA government has had to face after the spectrum sale by DMK's Union telecom minister A Raja. This happened despite trenchant opposition by the prime minister to the manner in which the 2G spectrum was sought to be sold. It is reliably learnt that the DMK leadership got in touch with '10 Janpath' - the official address of Sonia Gandhi - and told her that the spectrum sale had to go through if they wanted the government to survive.
A powerful business house involved in the telecom sector helped in building DMK's threat as well as the Congress leadership's quick response. Similar deals have hurt the image of Congress and opened it to the charge of political expediency rather than taking a moral stand on key issues.
What caused some embarrassment to Ahmed Bhai was the cash-for-vote scandal in 2008, when the Congress government was desperately trying to win a vote of confidence in Parliament on the civil nuclear deal with the US. It was a grim battle for numbers as the Left broke ranks with Congress to join hands with BJP to bring down the UPA government. An active sale of MPs took place. BJP MPs also sniffed money and were willing to jump the ship. Amar Singh worked actively with the Congress leadership to help the government survive. He was also negotiating with MPs who wanted to cross over.
To complicate matters, sting operations were being executed by TV channels. Phone intercepts and sting operations threw up the names of Amar Singh and Ahmed Bhai. A parliamentary committee of the Lok Sabha headed by Kishore Chandra Deo investigated the cash-for-vote scam, but as both Singh and Patel belonged to the Rajya Sabha, the probe basically meandered into nothing as the Lok Sabha panel did not have jurisdiction over members of the other house.
It was a close shave, but Ahmed Bhai, a survivor, moved on. Some other serious charges, too, were levelled against him, including one of alleged molestation, but he emerged from it all unscathed.
The important position that he occupies makes him quite vulnerable to all kinds of character assassination, but Patel has managed rather well. He has also kept in check subversive suggestions about his relationship with Narendra Modi and how that had prevented the Congress leadership from dismissing Modi's government after coming to power in 2004.
However, in spite of all his influence on the government and the party, Ahmed Bhai has never shown any evidence of a plan to revive the Congress party, except packing important committees or the Union Council of Ministers with people who swear by him. Every Congress unit in the states has complained of lack of direction from the party leadership. A coherent strategy to take on the opposition in different states seems to be lacking. What is also forgotten is that if the Congress party is robust on the ground, it would have the potential to absorb much of the damage caused by the government's policies.
Maybe the messenger or the executor of the Congress president's diktats is not supposed to show that he has a vision of his own, except by having his own people on crucial hot spots to control the tide of events.