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'Ahmed Bhai's political intellect was very high'

By VAIHAYASI PANDE DANIEL
Last updated on: December 07, 2020 17:29 IST
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'There were any number of Congress leaders who disliked Sonia Gandhi, but they were very close to Ahmed Bhai and he would listen, and give a shoulder to cry upon.'

IMAGE: Congress Treasurer Ahmed Patel seen weeks before he became one of the over 140,000 Indian victims (as of December 7, 2020) of COVID-19. Photograph: ANI Photo

Sheela Bhatt, the distinguished journalist and Rediff.com's former editorial director, knew Congress leader Ahmed Patel for 40 years.

Patel, always media shy, rarely granted interviews. Bhatt had the privilege to interview him a few times, at critical junctures in his career.

But they were family friends. In constant touch over the decades.

She and Ahmed Bhai, as Bhatt called him, often chatted about India, its future and Patel had unique political gyan (insights).

He was a warm man. Likeable. Unusual. And very Gujarati.

He loved ghazals and typical Gujarati farsan. He hated air travel and opted for the train.

Patel was a fascinating political leader and a special human being.

An old-style Congressman, Ahmed Bhai knew India intimately and was a reflection of the multi-faceted nature of India.

Sheela Bhatt reveals more about the Ahmed Patel most people didn't know in the concluding segment of a fascinating interview with Rediff.com's Vaihayasi Pande Daniel.

 

You said Mr Patel was a more of a Gujarati than a Muslim. Can you tell me what kind of Muslim he was?

He was a devout Muslim -- five times namazi.

But very private in his faith.

Ahmed Bhai never wanted to be known merely as a minority leader. He certainly wanted a bigger stage to play politics.

He had a lot of connections all over India with Islamic institutions and was typically Muslim, as others are.

But as he grew, and as he got power within Congress, he became more of a Congressman (and less identifiable as a Muslim). He personified Congress culture.

That was actually my next question. What were his characteristics as a as a typical Congressman?

It's a very interesting question.

Who a perfect Congressman is and who Ahmed Bhai was, was very well said in the obituary of Ahmed Bhai by (journalist) Harish Khare.

India is bigger than its politics.

India is bigger than its art, its culture.

India is bigger than its contemporary problems.

India is bigger than issues of security or issues of borders.

India is not just about castes and casteism.

India is so vast.

India is so full of complexities and contradictions, injustice and unfair treatment of people, and we have so much human suffering around us.

India seems impossible.

But even then, there is a way to deal with it.

There is a generations old knowledge of how to deal with it and how to carry on and on, and how to keep things going

We have a very beautiful word that can describe India. Shashwat (sada rahnewala or perpetual). India is.

Normally, old-style Congressmen have got that knack -- that out of a completely wicked situation or corrupt deal they can make something good for the national interest. Even out of a completely hopeless situation.

The Congress doesn't have a monopoly over this wisdom, but there were many leaders who helped the Congress to survive this long with this knack.

For instance, vis-a-vis the border situation, the Congress kept dragging it on and on and then arrived at some common ground. And then they will deal with it, slowly, slowly, allowing the tension to fizzle out.

Pakistan will take decades to understand how the Indian wisdom will deal with it, eventually.

That's a very Indian way of things and also a very Congress way of things - to carve out some kind of a deal, which is not necessarily very ethical or moral or on the basis of some ideals or morals, but something workable.

That is very much the Congress style.

And very much Mr Patel's also?

Mr Patel knew how to do that.

IMAGE: Sonia Gandhi with r Ahmed Patel at an election rally in Rajkot, October 12, 2012. Photograph: PTI Photo

Tell me a little more about him as a person. The little things. Like what kind of food he liked. Was he a family man? Was he a socialiser? Anything that you particularly knew about him?

A devout family man.

He was not a socialiser at all.

He liked his privacy; he enjoyed his privacy, listening to ghazals.

His wife Memoona was the steady factor of his life.

The Congress, and even the media, had taken his power for granted, almost. Because for so many years, he had enjoyed power.

He had a peculiar lifestyle, where he worked in the night-time, right till four o'clock. Everybody knew that in Delhi.

I would say his biggest strength was that in his personal behaviour, he was very sensitive. And in spite of his very realistic politics and in spite of the ruthless way in which he protected the Congress's interests and preserved the Gandhi family's supremacy in the party, he never lost his sensitivity. It was a surprising balance.

In the mid-1980s I wrote a cover story, for a publication, where then Gujarat chief minister Amarsinh Chaudhary had alleged some corruption against Ahmed Bhai.

When I met him after that, Ahmed Bhai had tears in his eyes and asked how could I write such things.

So, I said: 'But your chief minister told me'.

He controlled himself then. He kept silent.

Kanti Bhatt (Sheela Bhatt's husband and the legendary Gujarati journalist) died in 2019. Ahmed Bhai maintained a relationship with him, by calling him unfailingly, now and then.

Recently, he helped an Ahmedabad lawyer -- he paid Rs 22 lakhs to save him from COVID-19.

His COVID-19 treatment bill was so hefty, but Ahmed Bhai saved him.

When Ahmed Bhai died of COVID-19, that lawyer, whose life he had saved, cried as if he would lose his mind from grief.

He would follow the Hindu calendar unfailingly and send greetings or call people. He would call some 400 plus people every Diwali. The Parsi and Jain festivals he never missed. He would go out of his way to send greetings.

He communicated very well.

This kind of sensitivity, and alertness to help, was unusual.

Sometimes I found him very contradictory -- like he was very difficult to access, he was very difficult to talk to.

But at the same time, he would really go out of his way to help people.

The term that figured in all the obituaries of Mr Ahmed Patel was that he was the Congress's chief strategist for his organisational abilities.

That is just lazy brandisation (branding).

It doesn't work like that.

The reality is that: As far as Ahmed Bhai enjoyed the confidence of Sonia Gandhi, things worked.

His political intellect was very high; political acumen was very high.

He possessed the classical Indian old ways -- nawabi ways -- where you know that things don't change overnight and no one should live with that kind of illusion that you are changing things.

He had no such illusion that India will be revolutionising after their party's stint in power.

Photograph: Manvender Vashist/PTI Photo

You are saying that he was a much more unusual man than that? And he could not be branded simply as a darbari or a strategist?

Let me bring up a one sensitive issue. Sonia Gandhi said he was irreplaceable.

In her shraddhanjali to Ahmed Bhai she said he was a loyal colleague.

I was very surprised that she said that.

It's a very odd thing to say.

If he's a colleague, he would be loyal.

But I would say it's a wrong to put him down (describe him) as merely a darbari (courtier in the Congress royal arena).

He was on (operated from) a much bigger platform than a darbari or loyalist or bhakt. His style of functioning was more intricate.

A mere darbari would not have the political quotient to let go of the best of ministries and actual power, to move files in the government.

The media loves to brand politicians randomly.

To say that present BJP ministers Rajnath Singh, Nitin Gadkari and Amit Shah are merely bhakts of Modi or are darbariss is not correct.

They admire Modi, they accept his leadership, they work for him, they work for a common cause.

They know their respective limitations and they know Modi's strengths, so they find a balance to deal with it. There is only the prime minister's chair.

So, it was the same way with Ahmed Bhai and Sonia Gandhi.

There were any number of leaders who disliked Sonia Gandhi, but they were very close to Ahmed Bhai and he would listen, and give a shoulder to cry upon.

In the Congress there were enough people who felt they were not getting enough from Sonia Gandhi.

Ahmed Bhai also understood ground realities, particularly when the second stint of UPA was failing.

Of course, he would do everything to protect Sonia and supported 'ha ji, ji ha' culture -- all that goes without saying.

But, in every such act there was a political aim to achieve, that took him beyond the boundaries any bhakt would have.

Many times, he was playing all sides. That made him different and that helped Sonia Gandhi, too.

Privately, he had that kind of a level of a relationship where he would tell Sonia Gandhi what he thinks, his own view and what he thinks should be done.

It was believed that Ahmed Bhai and Sonia Gandhi worked through WhatsApp. He was very frank on WhatsApp.

On almost all the party matters she sounded him out.

We would not know much more, as he took his knowledge and experiences to his grave.

How was it that he died of COVID-19?

On October 1, Ahmed Bhai tweeted that he is COVID-19 positive. He wasn't critical till November 8/9. So, it's quite shocking.

He talked to many people after he got COVID-19.

He told me on October 29 while recuperating in Faridabad's Metro Heart Institute about his stay in a lesser-known hospital, "It's about the comfort level. I trust Dr Shyam Sunder Bansal. He is my family doctor for 30 years and knows my case more than me. I trust him only. We have family relationships."

In the hospital, Dr Bansal gave him the VIP treatment and gave him a dedicated, exclusive, ICU, most well-trained ward boys, best of the resident doctors and nurses.

Ahmed Bhai was improving slowly in spite of the virus's presence in lungs. He felt he was in his comfort zone. His family was taking fine care of him.

Ahmed Bhai was confident throughout that he would be going home soon.

Dr Randeep Guleria of AIIMS, Dr Arup Basu of the Gangaram hospital, Dr J C Suri, top pulmonologist, Dr Sudhir Bhandari of Jaipur and Dr R K Patel of Ahmedabad were consulted constantly by Dr Bansal.

Dr Apar Jindal of MGM hospital flew to Faridabad for a check-up.

Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah called up the Patel family and offered all help.

Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and former Haryana CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda were monitoring too.

After three weeks of hospitalisation by October 26m he started meeting people.

He was planning to shift to his village Pirman in south Gujarat for long rest; he even thought of shifting to Goa for a few weeks.

As luck would have it, when he was on the path of a very slow recovery in the exclusive ICU in Faridabad, the Metro hospital management changed hands.

Dr Purshotam Lal and Dr Bansal had a long-standing feud over control of the Metro hospital.

The result of the auction of the hospital came on November 10 where Dr Lal's bid was accepted.

The decision was taken to shift Afhmed Bhai as Dr Bansal lost control of the management of the Metro hospital.

He was first shifted to the Asian Hospital nearby and then to the Medanta hospital in Gurgaon where he died due to multiple organ failure.

His medical papers mentions his death was due to amongst many things a series of cardiac arrests and septic shock.

Ahmed Bhai never ever accepted Delhi as his city.

He wasn't rooted here. It was appropriate that as per his wish he was buried in the graveyard in his village.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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