The Congress has lost Ahmed Patel when it needed him the most. Forever understated and low profile, he was fiercely loyal to the party and its top leadership, especially Sonia Gandhi, whom he served as political secretary even before the formation of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime in 2004.
Patel was to Sonia Gandhi what RK Dhawan was to her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi. Always a man of few words, he kept out of the media glare, carrying out her edicts without standing up to be seen. The power he drew from his proximity to the party president was discreetly used in her name. At times he was an emissary, at times a plenipotentiary.
Having the leader’s ear and her confidence lent Patel the aura and the gravitas to interface with party colleagues and alliance partners. He was at once a Gandhi confidant, point person, and troubleshooter. But for his backroom stratagem, the Manmohan Singh regime wouldn’t have survived the Opposition’s no-trust motion after the Left parties withdrew support over the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2008. That, perhaps, was the only time when Patel seemed to take credit for a job well done, fleetingly letting his guard down to show this writer a congratulatory SMS he received from Gandhi.
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A three-term Lok Sabha and five-time Rajya Sabha member, Patel never held a ministerial office, be it under Rajiv Gandhi, whom he served as parliamentary secretary in the early 1980s, or in the UPA regime. He was an archetypal party person, an apparatchik whose membership of the Congress’s core group fetched him a slot on the high table with the PM, Gandhi, and a select group of top ministers: AK Antony, Arjun Singh and Pranab Mukherjee.
Not surprising then that he was the repository of all information in the Congress. As the one who knew the leadership’s mind, he spoke, when required, in monosyllables, using innuendoes to drop hints. He advised Gandhi but never transgressed his brief. As the media’s go-to man in the Congress, his word was as good as that of the high command. The position fetched him as many friends across parties as he had rivals within the Congress.
There was no dearth of senior colleagues who envied him deeply; who conspired and ran whisper campaigns against him, incessantly attributing to him their personal comeuppance and the party’s organisational woes. He often was the whipping boy who kept his counsel to weather personal storms that were aplenty. His success lay in the fact that even his worst detractors ran to him for help on finding themselves in a spot.
The one time Patel seemed to go wrong was when he hinted at the then telecom minister A Raja’s ejection from the Cabinet at the height of the 2G scam that hit UPA-2. But there, too, he hadn’t misread the leadership’s inclination to drop the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader. The PM had made up his mind. His prerogative was negated by the “compulsions of coalition” that saw the DMK patriarch, M Karunanidhi, insisting on Raja’s continuation.
Crisis in fact hit the UPA-2 in the early phases of the Congress-led coalition’s return to power in 2009. At the heart of it was Sharm El Sheikh. It was left to Patel to convey to the PM the party’s strong disapproval of his joint statement (drawing its name from the Egyptian resort) with the then Pakistan prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani.
The Congress brass was startled by the agreement delinking action against terrorism from the bilateral composite dialogue process. Not just that, the first ever reference to Balochistan (where Pakistan accuses India of fomenting trouble) in an India-Pak communiqué gave the Bharatiya Janata Party the ammunition to go all guns booming for the government.
On his way to Egypt, Singh visited France to attend its national day function. The Congress was as much in the dark about the participation of an Indian contingent at the Bastille Day parade. From all available accounts, Patel was at his deferential best during his call on the PM, with whom he had cordial relations. The polite message he had for him was: there’s a party that runs the government and is accountable for all its actions.
“Whence do we find another one like him,” bemoaned P Chidambaram in a condolence tweet. The tribute was as apt as it was telling about Patel’s indispensability to the party.