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Ahmed Patel, Cong's Behind the Scenes Man, Who Fought on Gujarat Frontlines

Ahmed Patel’s rise in the Congress pecking order under Sonia Gandhi has been phenomenal, and perhaps the most under-reported development in contemporary Indian politics.

Pallavi Ghosh | CNN-News18pallavighcnnibn

Updated:August 9, 2017, 9:16 AM IST
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Ahmed Patel, Cong's Behind the Scenes Man, Who Fought on Gujarat Frontlines
File photo of Congress Rajya Sabha Member Ahmed Patel. (Getty Images)
Ahmedabad: Ahmed Patel’s media appearances in the past one month would outnumber the ones he had made in his entire political career before the dates of Rajya Sabha polls in Gujarat were announced. But then such were the times and such was the situation that the all-powerful yet understated political secretary to the Congress President had to personally manage his own RS election and count every MLA to the polling booth. Ironically, in the last two decades, Patel would have vetted and cleared innumerable tickets to the Upper House.

Gujarat, they say, has ruled the country for almost 13 years now.

Narendra Modi moved to Delhi in 2014 after an emphatic victory in Lok Sabha elections. For 10 years before that, Ahmed Patel, the low-profile political advisor to Congress chief Sonia Gandhi was the chief of staff calling the shots.

Patel’s rise in the Congress pecking order under Mrs Gandhi has been phenomenal, and perhaps the most under-reported development in contemporary Indian politics.

An old style politician, Patel has maintained cordial relations with the media which, till last month, he shied away from.

There is one phone call every senior Congress reporter invariably gets each year on Holi and Diwali without fail. It’s from Ahmed Patel, or AP as he is known in political circles.

It is this understated style which has, perhaps, been his strength in Congress’ durbar politics.

The three-time Lok Sabha MP from Bharuch in South Gujarat has been in Parliament since 1977. He is one of the few politicians who has worked with three generations of Congress’ first family.

He cut his teeth in active politics during Indira Gandhi’s tenure and learned the ropes when Rajiv Gandhi was the prime minister between 1984 and 1989. His proximity to the two former PMs helped Patel chaperone Sonia Gandhi when the latter took over as party president. Patel was also closely associated with the setting up of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, something which brought him close to the family after the former PM’s assassination.

So when Sonia took the plunge into active politics, Ahmed Patel’s stature within the party grew. Those who have watched him closely say he never flaunted his proximity to the Congress president. The fact that he was very discreet made him all the more valuable to the party.

Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah disclosed at a media interaction earlier this year that he was in the Congress because of AP.

Not that Patel did not have his share of adversaries in intra-party politics. Some would occasionally go and complain hoping he would be downsized in the next restructuring. But come the new list and Ahmed Patel would find pride of a position in the hierarchy.

Sources within the party say that in the last 10 years, Patel was the brain behind all the political decisions taken by Sonia. A former general secretary of the party says, “There is not a single decision taken that did not have Patel’s stamp of approval. Whenever madam said she would think over an issue, everyone knew that she meant to discuss it with Patel.”

When Team Rahul moved in, it was felt in Congress circles that AP’s rein was finally over. Initially, it seemed to be so as calls to him would often get a stoic response ‘don’t ask me, I don’t know anything’.

But as the Congress faced one crisis after another, especially after the Lok Sabha debacle and Bengal election, AP has been active in managing political crises.

From seat distribution talks with the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh to the presidential and vice-presidential elections, Rahul and Priyanka have fallen back upon him in crisis situations.

AP knew that outcome in the Gujarat RS polls would have a larger national ramification. “It will hugely undermine Sonia Gandhi’s authority. Consecutive fifth Rajya Sabha term (since 1993) is unprecedented... A demoralising message will go that neither Sonia nor her key strategist are capable of winning indirect polls or keep the flock together,” political analyst Rasheed Kidwai told News18.

This perhaps explains why Patel fought till the finish. What was at stake was not just one RS seat but Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s political writ.
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