In a parliamentary democracy, power is diffused. The legislature is where the sovereignty of citizens is expressed through representatives; the executive is where real authority is exercised, shaping lives of citizens and steering the nation through everyday crises. The political coalition or party which enjoys a majority drives the political outlook and vision governing decisions; the bureaucracy influences both policy formulation and acts as a policy executor; the judiciary keeps an eye on whether the exercise of this authority is being done within the framework of the Constitution; big business has its priorities, and through political funding, often wields an invisible influence on policy; the media plays the role of a watchdog; and civil society represents, often, the views of organised citizens with specific interests which need to be heard and accommodated for deeper legitimacy.
If there was one Congress leader who had an almost instinctive understanding of how to manage these various sources and sites of power, it was Ahmed Patel. And that is why his loss is the most significant setback to India’s Grand Old Party in recent times. The setback is even deeper because the Congress—after losing two consecutive Lok Sabha elections and multiple state elections, being perceived as directionless, in the midst of uncertainty over leadership and a cold war between diverse interest groups—is now left bereft of perhaps the one man who had the ability to bridge stakeholders within the power apparatus of the party, and between the party and its possible constituents of support outside.
Ahmed Patel entered Parliament when the Congress was in Opposition for the first time in Indian history—after the Emergency. Like many others who cut their teeth in those difficult times when the Congress was being attacked by those in government and facing an internal churn, Patel made his choice early on. He would stay loyal to Indira Gandhi and the family.
But it was during Rajiv Gandhi’s time that Patel began understanding the dynamics of power—forming a part of the troika of parliamentary secretaries the PM appointed. It was here that Patel understood the power and constraints within which the prime minister, even one with 400-plus seats, operated; he saw the power of the Parliament, even where the Opposition was at its weakest; he saw the importance of keeping the party organisation together, in the midst of emerging mutinies against the young PM; he saw how handling contradictions that emerge from religion and caste was central to managing politics (an area of familiarity since his home state, Gujarat, too, was often the site of both communal and caste clashes). It was here that he began forming lifelong networks within the party, and his loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi family deepened.
But if he cut his teeth with Rajiv Gandhi, it was with Sonia Gandhi that Patel truly came into his own. Once again, like at the beginning of his political career, the Congress was in crisis in the late 1990s and early 2000s—Sonia Gandhi had just entered formal politics and had not yet attained the respect of all within her own party; Atal Bihari Vajpayee was in power and being rated as the most popular prime minister of recent times; Patel’s home state of Gujarat was now firmly in the grip of the Bharatiya Janata Party, with an unprecedented degree of Hindu-Muslim polarisation and with Patel himself being made acutely conscious of his Muslim identity. Few thought the Congress could return to power.
But it did, pulling off a surprise in the 2004 polls. And that is when Patel began harnessing all the skills that he had developed in the preceding two-and-a-half decades. India had the most unusual experiment of the party president (Sonia Gandhi) constituting one element of the power matrix and the prime minister (Manmohan Singh) constituting another. There may be diverse views on whether this experiment was healthy or even appropriate for democracy—but if it lasted for a decade, the man who played a central role in navigating the relationship, determining the messages that went from the party to the government, and playing the messenger at the highest levels of power was Ahmed Patel.
Between 2004 and 2014, it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that no major political or policy decision happened without either Ahmed Patel’s consent or his knowledge. The man who developed a legendary reputation for operating largely at night became the key gatekeeper to Sonia Gandhi—in terms of who she would meet, what she would prioritise, and which way she would veer—and the most formidable, but largely invisible, power centre in India in recent decades.
If a Congress leader had a grievance, he went to Patel. If a state was headed for elections, it was left to Patel to determine the candidates and tone of the campaign. If a Cabinet reshuffle had to take place, it was Patel who deliberated on the names with Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. If an ally had to be managed, it was Patel who worked his phones. If resources had to be mobilised, it was Patel who tapped his corporate network, often leveraging his Gujarati roots with the country’s biggest business houses. If a top bureaucratic appointment was in the offing, officials lined up, quietly—and yes, again in the middle of the night—to make their case to Patel. If the Opposition had to be countered—either by political management or using the instruments of the State (including in violation of the spirit of democratic norms)—it was Patel who gave the green signal. If the media strategy was to be decided, Patel gave the talking points to the party’s spokespersons or briefed journalists, almost always off the record. If a party unit in a state was in the grip of a factional divide, it was left to Patel to read the riot act and reconcile interests. This, indeed, was the hard mechanics of politics that Patel thrived in—away from the public glare on the more orchestrated elements of political theatre.
In the last six years, Patel had to deal with two distinct transitions. One was the change in the national political climate, with a dominant BJP, led by his old acquaintance, and some suggest, friend, from his Gujarat days — Narendra Modi—changing the vocabulary and rules of Indian politics. But it was not as much Modi, with whom Patel did share cordial ties, but Amit Shah, who saw Patel as among those responsible for the cases against him in Gujarat, who decided to challenge Patel’s power—including in the thriller of a contest for his Rajya Sabha seat from Gujarat in 2017. Patel won that battle, and this was testament to how, even at his weakest, he had the instruments to secure his interests.
The second was the more immediate internal generational transition within his own party, with Sonia Gandhi stepping back and Rahul Gandhi emerging as the next leader. Rahul Gandhi was understood to have deep scepticism of the party’s “Old Guard”, which he blamed for the weaknesses of the United Progressive Alliance government and for the larger political culture within the Congress. Rahul Gandhi appeared to think that the presence of well-entrenched political leaders around his father and mother had led them to make political mistakes. Never confirmed by either side, and often the subject of Delhi’s political grapevine, Patel—in this viewpoint—represented the Old.
But over the past few years, even Rahul Gandhi appeared to recognise the indispensability of Ahmed Patel. He played a key, but behind-the-scenes role, along with his old friend who too had cut his teeth in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Ashok Gehlot, in helping Rahul Gandhi mount an aggressive campaign in the Gujarat elections of 2017; he played his part in managing the Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh elections in 2018, with success; as treasurer, he ensured that the Congress—despite being out of power—had the resources to put up a fight in 2019; with Sonia Gandhi‘s return as the party chief, he helped rehabilitate Bhupinder Hooda in Haryana, posing a challenge to the BJP in state polls; and he was a behind-the-scenes architect of the Maharashtra alliance with another of his older, former colleagues, Sharad Pawar.
For a man who entered the national political theatre when the Congress was in Opposition 43 years ago, and has left the theatre of life when the Congress is in Opposition now, Ahmed Patel’s life was marked by his relationship with power, even though he wore that power very lightly, with a smile, often understating his own authority and being tentative about any evolving political situation. Or perhaps it was because he had seen power so up close that there was also this tentativeness about Patel; certitudes, he knew, did not work in democratic politics.
There can be a strong critique of his importance—for should a man who largely operated invisibly have exercised such power without the commensurate public accountability? Was he so immersed in just navigating the corridors of power in central Delhi that he failed to read the political currents on the ground and prepare his party leadership accordingly? But irrespective of one’s views on Patel, there is little doubt that he remained a true, loyal, indispensable pillar of the Congress—and, by extension, of Indian politics. The party will feel his loss deeply.