In the byzantine corridors of the Delhi durbar, power is the sole currency. Power here doesn’t flow from a gun barrel but from position and address, the more proximate you are to the prime minister’s office the more powerful you can claim to be. Power is an intoxicant, it can breed arrogance and pomposity in even otherwise decent people. Rare are those who resist the trappings of power and wear their clout lightly, those who are counted amongst the most influential in the land but yet choose to remain grounded in their inter-personal relationships. Ahmed Patel belonged to that uncommon tribe of people in the national capital who didn’t have to boast about their authority but chose to instead remain as understated as the relatively modest 23 Mother Teresa Crescent home that he refused to shift from even when much larger bungalows beckoned.
Ahmedbhai, as he was known to anyone who was even a nodding acquaintance of his, was the quintessential backroom politician. Not for him the pomp and pageantry of the state or indeed the lure of the tv camera. After knowing him as a senior politician for over a quarter of a century, I must have interviewed him just a couple of times, the last when in June 2020, the Enforcement directorate quizzed him in a money laundering case. That was one of the few occasions when he seemed ready to speak out on camera against the Modi government, accusing them of carrying out a personal vendetta. Else, he mostly remained the silent operator, whether in or out of power, drawing his command within the Congress and the UPA governments from his vast network of connections across party lines. In a coalition government era, this made him a truly invaluable, almost essential asset to the Sonia-Manmohan regime. While he was Mrs Gandhi’s political secretary, a post that gave him unfettered access to 10 Janpath, he was also the crisis manager for the Manmohan Singh government, a role in which he would astutely manage a tricky political environment by working the phone lines till late into the night and cashing in on the goodwill earned from numerous IOUs.
He was also the great survivor in the faction and intrigue ridden universe of the Congress because, unlike many of his contemporaries, he did not actively seek the loaves and fishes of high ministerial office, almost reveling in being the low-key loyalist in the Gandhi family constellation. Picked up by Indira Gandhi to contest a Lok Sabha election in 1977 from his home town of Bharuch in Gujarat as a 28 year old Youth Congress leader, Ahmedbhai would also serve as Rajiv Gandhi’s parliamentary secretary in 1985, a post where he first learnt the skills of working with MPs across the political aisle. In 1989, he lost a Lok Sabha election, losing again in 1991. Gujarat and indeed India, was changing as the rising tide of Hindutva rhetoric swept away Muslim political representatives (Gujarat has not had a single Muslim MP since 1989).
Realising his limitations in the rapidly transforming political milieu, Ahmedbhai moved to the Rajya Sabha in 1993 where he became a permanent fixture. He was not a mass leader by any stretch and nor did he pretend to be one. He is perhaps best described as a calm and crafty political manager, someone who could artfully join the dots at a time when politics was getting increasingly fragmented and turbulent, one day breaking bread with potential allies, next day seeking funds from industrialists, a bridge builder with supporters in both political and corporate India. His wasn’t the politics of threat and intimidation but of genuinely cultivating people and friendships, of negotiation not confrontation. In this he had the perfect partner in Pranab Mukherjee, another shrewd 24 x 7 practitioner of realpolitik. The duo held the UPA together in difficult times, their endless soirees ending well after midnight. Pranab da was the more ambitious, eventually going on to become President and then a Bharat Ratna. Ahmedbhai, by contrast, never revealed his unfulfilled desires beyond being content in his unchallenged role as the Congress’s ‘go-to’ trouble-shooter.
Perhaps, the one politician he fell foul of was the present home minister, Amit Shah. Both fiercely competitive netas from Gujarat, Shah was convinced that Ahmedbhai was the architect of a ‘conspiracy’ to jail him in 2010. Their animosity towards each other would spill over into a combustible 2017 Rajya Sabha election where Shah made every attempt to block Ahmedbhai’s entry into parliament. In the event, Ahmedbhai just about squeaked home, the battle then being pursued in the courts. It was perhaps not quite the bitter fight that Ahmedbhai had expected: just as Hindu majoritarianism had isolated him once in the Lok Sabha, the BJP’s ruthless election machine was now determined to finish him politically. In fact, in the 2017 Gujarat assembly elections, a canard was spread that if the Congress won, ‘Mian’ Ahmedbhai would become chief minister. Politics was getting increasingly toxic and the man from Bharuch was now under siege.
Even within the Congress, there was a change in guard: the ageing Sonia loyalists were losing out to the young and restless brigade of Rahul Gandhi. It was at times an acrimonious power tussle that seemed to trouble Ahmedbhai, for whom party and parivar were indistinguishable. And yet, even while he was slowly feeling unwanted, he would never betray his sense of hurt in public. Truth is, the Congress still desperately needed him in a crisis. In July this year, when Sachin Pilot rebelled in Rajasthan, it was Ahmedbhai who played a key role in helping chief minister Ashok Gehlot keep the restive flock together. Last year, he was instrumental with Sharad Pawar in forging an alliance in Maharashtra when the conviction of Rahul Gandhi, and even to some extent Sonia Gandhi, was against any deal with the Shiv Sena. Like a clever politician, he realized that there are no permanent enemies or enduring ideological affinities in power games.
The last time I met him was in August this year when a group of 23 Congress leaders wrote a letter seeking reform in the Congress style of functioning. Many of the signatories were Ahmedbhai’s old colleagues, so he was reluctant to speak out against them publicly. Instead, he kindly offered me a bowl of delicious mangoes he had just got from his farm in Bharuch. When I persisted, all he would say was: “You know Soniaji is unwell, this is not the time for them to target her like this!” Maybe, he was the archetypal status quoist who didn’t want to rock the boat that he had carefully steered for so long through good times and bad. Maybe, he was just being Ahmedbhai, an old style family and party loyalist whose enduring presence symbolized a sense of continuity in changing times. With his passing away, the Sonia era in the Congress may well and truly be drawing to an end. Next time, the Congress is in distress, there wont be an inscrutable Ahmedbhai to work the phones. The Congress’s permanent emergency line has gone silent.
Post-script: In the course of researching for my 2019 book, I learnt that the VVIP patrons of the Ahmedabad-based Jade Blue retail chain included not just Narendra Modi but also Ahmed Patel. But whereas Narendrabhai prefers a range of colourful jackets, Ahmedbhai favored the more traditional kurtas. Maybe the sartorial differences reflect in their politics too: if Narendrabhai is the showman, Ahmedbhai was always the man in the shadows.