10 Janpath’s Discreet Chanakya
Politicians across the spectrum consider Ahmed Patel second only to Sonia Gandhi. So what makes him tick?
Akash Bisht Delhi
At a recent informal gathering, a leader of a key UPA ally was seen openly criticising the Congress leadership on the issue of rising food prices and inflation. Busy in his verbal tirade, he paid no attention to his secretary who had one hand on the phone and the other on the mouthpiece. After several attempts, the veteran took notice of his secretary with the phone. He said, "Tell him to call later." The secretary came close and whispered - for everyone to hear: "It's Ahmed Patel."
The politician jumped up as if bitten by a scorpion, grabbed the phone, and hurriedly walked out of the room to the sprawling lawn of his party office in New Delhi. He was obviously trying to clarify his stance on the controversial comments he had just aired on TV news channels. Later, he rationalised, "Ahmed Bhai said the comments were hitting below the belt."
Popularly known as Ahmed Bhai, politicians across the spectrum consider Ahmed Patel second only to Congress President Sonia Gandhi. He is the crisis man and widely perceived in political circles to be consulted by the Congress chief herself for every political overture. He is known to be an efficient and reasonable crisis manager and fire-fighter, but remains stoically silent when it comes to sharing his views with party colleagues and others. No one, practically, knows his mind. Insiders say he only shares his mind with Sonia Gandhi.
The recent cabinet reshuffle, too, had his indelible imprint whereby some with proximity to him bagged handsome portfolios. "He has been a Congress loyalist since the days of Indira Gandhi. He was the trusted man of Rajiv Gandhi and even other Congress presidents in the past. What sets him apart from the rest is his discreet nature and his ability to avoid any personal-political ambitions," says Vijay Sanghvi, veteran Gujarati journalist who knows Ahmed Patel since his early days in politics.
Born to Mohammed Ishakji Patel and Hawaben Mohammedbhai in 1949, Patel hails from the small village of Piraman in Bharuch district, Gujarat. He did his BSc at Shree Jayendra Puri Arts and Science College, Bharuch. His father was a member of the taluk panchayat at Bharuch. He was a well-known Congressman in the area. In his late 20s, Patel took the plunge in active politics and became a member of the Pradesh Youth Congress in 1977. "His father, being a known face in Gujarat Congress, helped Patel launch his political career. Belonging to a minority community worked to his advantage," says a Congress worker from Gujarat. In 1977, he fought his first Lok Sabha elections and won from Bharuch. He later went on to become the youngest president of the Gujarat Pradesh Youth Congress Committee.
To his credit, he is only the second Muslim to have won a Lok Sabha election from Gujarat along with Ehsan Jafri, the scholarly politician who was murdered along with several others by a VHP-BJP mob in the Gulbarg Society massacre during the Gujarat genocide, 2002. He later went on to win two more Lok Sabha elections from the same constituency, and lost two.
Patel was considered to wield clout with Indira Gandhi. He convinced her to hold meetings in his constituency in 1977 after she had lost the elections and was literally in the abyss, post Emergency, her popularity at an all-time low, her charisma shattered. "Indira Gandhi wanted to induct fresh faces in Congress and Patel being an early bloomer and a minority leader helped her in entrusting faith on him," says a Gujarat leader.
"Patel and Sanat Mehta invited Indira Gandhi for four meetings in their respective constituencies. She told them that this would be a disaster as she has been routed in the elections after Emergency, but the duo managed to convince her. This eventually kind of re-launched the return of Indira Gandhi who later entrusted faith in Patel after she came back to power in 1980," recalls Sanghvi. It is said that she even offered him a ministerial berth which he reportedly declined. These overtures helped Patel establish himself as a close confidante of the Gandhi parivar.
Soon after Indira Gandhi's assassination, Rajiv Gandhi became the Congress president and Ahmed Patel was made general secretary of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) in 1984. Rajiv was considered close to Patel owing to the latter's allegiance to Indira Gandhi and being a leader from Bharuch - that was also the birthplace of his father, Feroze Gandhi. "Rajiv has been emotionally attached to Bharuch and this brought the two together," says another Gujarat leader.
Since then, there has been no looking back for Patel who has held one or the other meaty profile in the AICC. After he declined to be a minister in Rajiv Gandhi's cabinet, he was made parliamentary secretary to the prime minister with Arun Singh and Oscar Fernandes.
After Narasimha Rao succeeded Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, Patel became a member of the Congress Working Committee, the post he holds till date. During Sitaram Kesari's tenure, Patel was elevated to the coveted post of the party treasurer from which he resigned after news of differences between him and Sonia Gandhi's personal secretary, V George, surfaced. "This was perhaps the only political mistake that he ever committed in his political career at the Centre. He was intelligent and tactful enough to soon sort out the differences with Sonia Gandhi and managed to win her trust yet again. At present, many perceive him as Sonia's right hand man," says a party leader.
Such is his hold over the party that politicians shy away from uttering anything that favours or criticises him. No one would really want to offend him, or be in his bad books. Also, apparently, many appointments for party posts or nominations for elections are done with his approval. Obviously, he draws direct or tacit power from the Congress president, since he is her political advisor. Many refer to him as a modern day Chanakya who works behind the scene and makes certain ministers wait for days for an appointment.
So, what makes Ahmed Bhai such an important man despite his being an extremely media shy, soft-spoken, humble and simple individual?
An old friend of Patel recalls that he would ferry him to Parliament on a Rajdoot bike to book railway tickets under the MP quota in 1977. "He was always a helpful and flexible guy those days. He used to accompany people to every possible ministry for their work, as he never said no to anyone for anything," recalls an old friend from Gujarat. To his criticism, many believe that this 'soft attitude' has hurt party prospects in various states, especially in 'hardline BJP's Gujarat'. "Different people give him all sorts of advice and he often agrees to many of them. This has led to the steady downfall of Congress in the state," says a senior Gujarat leader.
His critics call him a leader with no mass base, an average political strategist, someone who is not popular with the Gujarat Congress leaders or workers who blame him for the party's repeated and dismal performance in the state. Indeed, before Narendra Modi's polarising arrival, activists say - his hyper-communal propaganda and hate politics after the genocide in 2002 - the faction-ridden BJP was in dire straits, losing almost every local election in Gujarat. Even in the successive assembly elections, the Congress lost by low margins in many constituencies, the party still had a strong vote base, and it actually gained in the Lok Sabha elections. Despite Ahmed Patel, say insiders.
"His quest to please everyone is seriously hurting party interests. He would give tickets to individuals based on personal equations rather than the ground situation. This has decimated the Congress in Gujarat. If some measures are not taken immediately, we will stare at a Bihar-like situation for years to come," says a Gujarat Congress leader.
Some criticise him for playing a shrewd, invisible, tacit game of soft, deceptive alliance with Narendra Modi. There have been instances, like the Narmada Bachao Andolan's struggle against the big dam in Gujarat some years ago, when Medha Patkar was on an indefinite fast in Delhi, when it was supposed to be Ahmed Bhai's hand which pushed Congress leaders into the happy lap of big brother Modi. Besides, despite Sonia Gandhi's strong secular credentials, and Rahul Gandhi's stated position against communal politics, especially in the context of the Gujarat carnage, Patel's positions on Gujarat have been subdued, mysterious, unstated, often in the realm of a strange kind of silence.
How secular is indeed Patel's secularism?
However, his detractors, too, praise him for his handling of crisis situations and backroom negotiations with political leaders from various quarters and across the spectrum. "He has been loyal to the family for decades and being close to Rajiv certainly helped him in gaining Sonia's trust. His simplicity, loyalty, discreetness and commitment towards the party and its leadership are some of the reasons for his meteoric rise," says Sanghvi.
Also, it is widely known that Gujarat provides a lot of funds to the Congress's kitty, and Patel is known to have chummy and cordial relations with industrialists. This 'corporate angle' has added to his profile. "He gets the oil that runs the Congress machinery," jokes a senior leader.
A devout Muslim, Patel never misses his Friday namaz and prefers different mosques each time to avoid public glare. He consciously shuns publicity. It is even difficult to get his pictures along with Sonia Gandhi or the prime minister, whom he meets frequently. He visits his village quite often and is known to be happier in the company of family members rather than politicians. His wife and children, or family members, are hardly seen at public events and they even avoid political gatherings. "His total loyalty and commitment to the Gandhi parivar makes him what he is today and will continue to do so in the future," says a Gujarati politician and friend.
"He is a very simple man who has been driving an old Maruti Esteem for more than 15 years. He shies away from controversies since he prefers to live and work discreetly. He is totally tuned into the power and coalition politics of Delhi and knows what it takes to be in power without actually being in power," says a party leader.
Indeed, despite his strategic discretion, it always helps in the obsessive power circles in Delhi to build up a status symbol via proximity to Ahmed Bhai, or being close to his political network. "Many things can't move without his consent, tacit or otherwise," says a political observer. "It always helps to be close to him and have his ear if possible. No wonder, he is the powerful one mentioned by certain big-time journalists in the Radia tapes."