Cover Story

Ahmed Patel: Man on the Brink

PR Ramesh is Managing Editor of Open
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For over a decade, as the conscience keeper of 10 Janpath, Ahmed Patel was the most powerful non-Gandhi in India. The master of the Congress party’s dark arts faces his darkest moment today

He has been the Sir Galahad of political logistics, an aide of Congress President Sonia Gandhi for well over a decade. Described often as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, as the cliché goes, Ahmed Patel is a man who has for years cultivated an ordinariness to inform his public profile, as if he were determined to obscure his importance to the party and its chief. But this mask of a pedestrian persona, most Congress leaders acknowledged in hushed whispers, was a cover for the bloodless political coups he was entrusted with—and excelled at—to ‘strengthen the party’.

Patel’s number was the one-stop button that Sonia Gandhi pushed in all emergencies. He was named once in the cash-for- votes scam during the parliamentary confidence vote after the Indo-US nuclear deal, but a probe came up with nothing against him. Remember that Whirlpool advertisement that sported the tagline ‘Look ma, no fingerprints!’? That could have been about Patel. He’s so self-effacing, on the face of it, that despite all these years in politics, he hasn’t been in the eye of any major controversy. Nor can any friction or aggression be traced to him. His dossier has no stains. He was good at ‘fixing’ problems, and got what needed to be done, done—quietly and unerringly. He was the Congress party’s key strategic asset.

Yet, shunning the public glare, which he did obsessively, was an occupational hazard for Patel. As he grew more and more powerful within the Congress—till the point he was its second-most important member—it may have been this very aspect of his authority that placed him in the crosshairs of anyone who wanted to take Sonia Gandhi and her party down. Since Ahmed Bhai held the access key to her political clout, crippling him would deal a body blow to the party’s top leadership. Today, as he battles to keep the Gujarat Congress legislative flock together and win a Rajya Sabha berth from his home state—literally begging for the support of those who had been in genuflection before him till recently—Patel’s plight is symbolic of the party’s woes.

The aura around Ahmed Bhai’s power has begun to flicker, and some see it being snuffed out soon in the new political ecosystem. Rahul Gandhi, set to become party president later this year and take formal charge of the party’s vestiges, may have had to rely on Patel to obtain the support of the NCP, BSP and SP for its presidential candidate Meira Kumar, but the successor’s GenX dispensation seems to be pushing Sonia’s top aide out of the party’s power loop. In short, Patel’s authority is being overrun by both time (Rahul Gandhi’s ascent in the party) and tide (the saffron domination of today’s politics). BJP President Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are certain that the trail of the plot to implicate them in the Ishrat Jehan and Sohrabuddin encounter cases leads directly to 28 Tughlak Crescent, the residence of Congress leader V Narayanasamy in Lutyens’ Delhi; and the Congress grandee who BJP leaders believe was pulling the strings from behind the scene was none other than the low-profile politician from their home state. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that on August 2nd, Central tax officials raided Karnataka minister DK Shivakumar’s properties and later apprehended him for interrogation at a resort in Bengaluru where the Congress has housed 43 MLAs flown in from Gujarat to ensure they don’t defect ahead of the Rajya Sabha poll. Alarmed Congress leaders disrupted proceedings in both Houses of Parliament in protest against the raids, calling them a ‘witch-hunt’. Meanwhile, Income Tax officials have disclosed that Rs 11 crore in cash was seized in the raids at about 60 locations in Karnataka and Delhi.

WHEN SONIA GANDHI finally took over the Congress party following years of dithering in the aftermath of Rajiv Gandhi’s death, Ahmed Bhai was her go-to person, a political secretary who ensured a smooth ascent to the top and then stayed by her side. She reportedly chose the understated, hard-working and non-controversial Gujarati over the relatively high-profile Ambika Soni, wife of an IFS officer, for the post. She picked Patel not least because her late husband had grown close to the modest politician from Bharuch—his father Feroze Gandhi’s hometown— who’d begun as a grassroots worker and worked his way up. After Patel turned down a cabinet berth, Rajiv Gandhi had appointed him parliamentary secretary along with Arun Singh.

When Sonia Gandhi finally took over as Congress chief, Ahmed Patel was her go-to person. She reportedly chose the understated, hard-working and non-controversial Gujarati over the relatively high-profile Ambika Soni

Patel’s first breakthrough was in 1977, after the Emergency when the party supremo of the time, Sonia’s mother-in-law Indira Gandhi, was being shunned by the electorate and her own leaders were wary of associating with her. Patel and his colleague Sanat Mehta reportedly invited Indira Gandhi to their constituency for a public rally, and this was acknowledged as the platform from which she may have re-launched herself into the public consciousness. There was no holding Patel back thereafter. He contested a Lok Sabha seat in 1977 and won. He won again in 1980. Indira Gandhi is believed to have offered him a berth at the Centre which he turned down, preferring to play a powerful role away from the spotlight. He won in 1984, too, and it was only in 1989, when Gujarat’s landscape turned saffron over the Ram Janambhoomi movement, that he lost his seat.

Sonia Gandhi’s earliest interactions with Patel were at the Jawahar Bhawan Trust with which he was associated and in whose work she took an interest. A similar equation was established later at the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation. While Sonia kept Soni close, it was Patel who turned into her chief political advisor. Soon, her political secretary was the party’s key operations man.

“A secretary shouldn’t live inside your head,” a Congress leader irked by Patel’s influence on the party president was once quoted as saying. The man himself was careful never to flaunt his authority or any sign of wealth. He had a Maruti Esteem. His kurta-pyjama get- up was part of the art of invisibility he’d mastered in a field where visibility was the norm.

He also had a room reserved for him at 10 Janpath and ensured that funds were always available for family plans, but for complex party fund management, he preferred to operate discreetly from behind the walls of the Lutyens’ bungalow allotted to him at 23, Mother Teresa Crescent. Insiders say there was a method to his madness of being a tireless workaholic who slept only a few hours and often met visitors—politicians, businessmen and journalists included—until 3 am in the morning. A practising Muslim, Patel was ever the gracious host. Under UPA rule, when he walked into Parliament—typically he would be there at 5 pm sharp—journalists and politicians would crowd around him and enjoy the warmth of his company over the ‘bread toast’ and tea he often ordered for them.

Patel’s network had bureaucrats, lawyers and politicians of all hues. There was no major operation in the party that didn’t bear the stamp of the Wizard of Bharuch

IN SUCCESSIVE YEARS, the Grand Old Party’s dependence on Patel as its Mr Fix-It only grew; he was the one who could gum a puncture, nail down that loose board that threatened to trip plans up, and close doors as firmly as pry them open when required. During the PV Narasimha Rao years in the 90s, Arjun Singh and ND Tiwari were among the party seniors who projected themselves as the top Nehru-Gandhi loyalists, the Praetorian Guard of the dynasty. But even then, it was AP, as he was also known within the party, who Sonia Gandhi relied on and trusted most.

Pranab Mukherjee, that master strategist of the Congress who many are now hoping will advise the leadership on how to revive its electoral fortunes, was someone who Patel shared a close bond with. As Mr Strategy and Mr Operations, they would often work successfully to a plan together. P Chidambaram, another bigwig of the Congress, had his problems with Ahmed Bhai, but apparently never tried to block any of his decisions, construing them as having Sonia Gandhi’s approval.

Motilal Vora, party treasurer, got along exceedingly well with Patel, and this smoothened the path for funds to be routed to people and places at short notice to get work done for the party. Whenever an industrialist approached Vora, the party treasurer would direct him to Patel; by the time he’d return from Patel’s Mother Teresa Crescent bungalow, instructions would usually have reached Vora on how it could be resolved. Ahmed Bhai had a reputation as a favourite among industry honchos, including Gautam Adani, who is known to enjoy a close rapport with senior BJP leaders.

Patel’s network had bureaucrats, lawyers and politicians of all hues. Little wonder that there was no major operation in the party that didn’t bear the stamp of the Wizard of Bharuch.

Consider this incident from the UPA period. The opposition BJP’s top leaders, including LK Advani, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Venkaiah Naidu and Yashwant Sinha used to meet every day when Parliament was in session to discuss their party’s strategy in the Lok Sabha. In one instance, Jaitley raised the issue of a large land bank that Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra had managed to acquire in Haryana and insisted that it be raised in the House. To Jaitley’s consternation, however, most of his audience was hesitant. One even said that the children of politicians should not be targeted.

After the meeting held in Advani’s room was over and Jaitley was walking towards the House, he was accosted by Ahmed Bhai. The Congressman knew exactly what had transpired and made no bones about it. He then requested Jaitley not to raise the issue in the House. The incident illustrated just how deep Patel’s connections ran even within the BJP.

IT IS A sorry pass that Patel has now come to. At the height of his power, he could literally crook a finger to have ministers and chief ministers sacked—at the Congress president’s behest. Among those he is alleged to have pushed out was Sanjaya Baru, media adviser to former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Not only was he used as the sole direct conduit for political messages from Sonia to Singh, Baru later disclosed in his book The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh that even major decisions on, say, a cabinet reshuffle, were forced upon the UPA Government this way. Once, says Baru, he’d rushed to 7 Race Course Road less than an hour before a list of new cabinet ministers was to be handed over to the President, who was notified and waiting. Patel brought with him a new list. There was no time for a fresh printout, so Patel just had the old names white-inked and typed over, and this was done with barely minutes to go for the President’s assent.

In the Rahul Gandhi era, Patel’s power over party affairs is fast slipping away, which has left him exposed to attacks from his political adversaries in Gujarat and at the Centre. Since 1985, Patel has held one party position or another. In nearly two decades under Sonia Gandhi’s leadership, there has been only one occasion when his influence was seriously challenged. This was in the late 90s, when Vincent George entrenched himself at 10 Janpath. George also enjoyed the confidence of Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi. Following differences with George, Patel had quit his post as party treasurer, but returned to favour after George came under scrutiny for graft charges.

Now, though, with Sonia’s health failing and her gradual withdrawal from party work to pass on the mantle to her son, Patel’s special place in the Congress and its president’s scheme of things is in jeopardy. As he stares at defeat in the upcoming Rajya Sabha elections in Gujarat, circumstances seem to have conspired against him. Ahmed Bhai is suddenly that very ordinary person he’s been disguising himself as for decades. Both time and tide, for now, are with his opponents.