A day before former finance minister P Chidambaram was granted bail by the Supreme Court last December in a money laundering case, presspersons asked senior leaders Ahmed Patel and Kapil Sibal about their colleague’s fate. A confident Patel revealed that the decision would go in favour of the former minister while Sibal, who was also Chidambaram’s lawyer, remained unsure.
This seemingly casual conversation said a lot about Ahmed Patel’s famed information network and wide range of friends and contacts nurtured over the years he served in the Congress, first with Rajiv Gandhi and subsequently as party president Sonia Gandhi’s all-powerful political secretary.
During the 16 years he was Sonia Gandhi's political secretary, the self-effacing and low-key Patel was her chief confidant, trouble-shooter and go to person for all emergencies. He was a vital link between her and Congress cadres and, later when the UPA government was in power from 2004-2014, between the party and the government. He heard out the grievances of party leaders and was at hand to placate miffed allies. It was left to him to pick up the pieces and hold it all together, which he did very effectively.
Therefore, Ahmed Patel’s demise on November 25, following post-Covid complications, is a personal loss for Sonia Gandhi and a big blow for the Congress. The 71-year-old leader served as a “shock absorber” and an effective shield for Sonia Gandhi. As her long standing political secretary, Ahmedbhai or AP, as he was popularly called, kept critics and dissenters at bay by controlling access to her and protected the Congress president from any direct attack from within or outside the party. Patel played a key role in the appointment of Congress functionaries and, over the years, developed a wide network of party leaders who pledged loyalty to him.
It was an acknowledged fact in Congress circles that Patel did not enjoy the same rapport with Rahul Gandhi as he did with Sonia Gandhi. And yet, Rahul Gandhi found it difficult to ignore his mother’s trusted aide when he took over as Congress president. Patel was given the challenging job of raising funds for the cash-strapped Congress in his new role as party treasurer. There was all-round agreement that Patel was best suited for this job in view of his connections with the bigwigs of the corporate sector.
Given Patel’s wide-ranging role and standing in the party, it was only to be expected that the conversation post his death has centred around the vacuum he has left behind and how the Congress would fare without him. Already on a slippery slope after a string of electoral defeats, Patel’s death could not have come at a worse time for the Congress.
The party today is virtually leaderless and witnessing an internal churn with senior leaders, going public with their demand for internal elections and greater accountability. Sonia Gandhi is not well enough to discharge her duties as Congress president while Rahul Gandhi is not in charge though he is leading the party’s battle against the ruling BJP. With the party in a state of drift, Patel’s presence was a sanctuary for hapless Congress leaders for he was always accessible and willing to lend an ear to their problems. He was the only leader who could pick up the phone and have a conversation with the dissenters.
It is true that organisations, institutions and political parties are not wholly dependent on any single person and do not collapse in the absence of a particular individual. But it is a different story with the Congress today. If it was in better shape, it would have been easier for it to absorb the shock of Patel’s demise. But in its present state, the passing of a senior leader like Patel will only add to the overall state of gloom in the Congress. Though Rahul Gandhi has, over a period of time, placed his camp followers in key party positions, none have the seniority, experience and authority commanded by Ahemdbhai.
Patel’s presence and advice will be sorely missed in the coming months as the Congress begins preparations for the next round of assembly elections .The party will have to take a view on tying up with the Left parties in poll-bound West Bengal, firm up a seat-sharing formula with the DMK in Tamil Nadu and decide whether it is advisable to have an alliance with the AIUDF in Assam. There is no doubt these issues will be sorted out eventually but the party will certainly miss Patel’s connection with allies and his ability to deal with party rebels.
Nobody can forget that Patel camped in Mumbai for days in the run-up to the formation of the Uddhav Thackeray-led government in Maharashtra last year in which the Congress is a junior partner. Patel was also proactive in handling the recent crisis in Rajasthan when rebel leader Sachin Pilot threatened to bring down the Ashok Gehlot government.
Then there is the all-important task of raising funds for the Congress. Ever since its successive electoral losses, the grand old has been staring at a serious financial crisis. Industrial houses have pulled back from giving money to the Congress as it is not seen as a viable alternative to a resurgent BJP. Rahul Gandhi’s constant tirade against the corporate sector has further driven away potential funders. In the two years that Patel was treasurer, he did manage to salvage the situation and deliver for the party. His replacement will have a tough act to follow.
Nevertheless, the Congress will meander along. Its leaders will pick up the pieces and move on. But Patel’s political wisdom and deep knowledge of the party organisation will be remembered every step of the way.