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How Ahmed Patel became close to Sonia Gandhi

By Syed Firdaus Ashraf
Last updated on: November 27, 2020 10:47 IST
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'Temperamentally, they are quite alike.'
'Ahmed Patel avoided the limelight and was not a power seeker.'
'The Gandhis too are not power wielders, but trustees of power.'

IMAGE: Congress President Sonia Gandhi with her political adviser Ahmed Patel at an election rally in Rajkot, October 12, 2012. Photograph: PTI Photo

That senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel's demise on Wednesday morning will leave a chasm in his party can be gauged from the tributes that have been pouring in.

Interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who was cajoled and coaxed into helming the party in 1998 by Ahmed Patel and others, said she has lost an 'irreplaceable comrade' who 'lived and breathed the Congress'.

Her son Rahul Gandhi, who did not always share the best of vibes with Patel, concurred: 'Shri Ahmed Patel was a pillar of the Congress party. He lived and breathed Congress and stood with the party through its most difficult times. He was a tremendous asset.'

Ahmed Patel's value was not that he was the party treasurer or Sonia Gandhi's political adviser, it went far beyond that.

A self-effacing politician, Patel was among those who guided Sonia Gandhi on decisions, playing the trouble-shooter where necessary but always keeping the party's interests supreme. He was not in it for pelf or power, and even his political rivals admitted as much.

Syed Firdaus Ashraf/ spoke to veteran Congress-watcher Rasheed Kidwai on what Ahmed Patel meant to the Congress party and how it will overcome his loss.

The first of a two-part revealing interview:

How did Ahmed Patel emerge as the power behind the Congress throne for Sonia Gandhi?

The first and foremost reason was that temperamentally they are quite alike.

Ahmed Patel was very low key and shunned publicity. He avoided the limelight and was not a power seeker. The Gandhis too are not power wielders, but trustees of power.

Ahmed Patel too did not hold any official position except for a brief period when he was parliamentary secretary to prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. He could have become a central minister, but he did not.

He had a very clean image, just like Dr Manmohan Singh.

And these three -- Sonia Gandhi, Dr Singh and Ahmed Patel -- had the same temperament. They were not boastful or money-minded.

Why did he stop contesting elections in the later part of his life?

He won the Lok Sabha elections from Bharuch in 1977, 1980 and 1984. After that the elections became communalised. He was known as Babu Bhai, but later on his opponents started calling him as 'Ahmed Miyan', pointing to his Muslim identity.

It was then suggested by some people that he should contest elections outside Gujarat, like Mufti Mohammad Sayeed won from Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh and Mohammad Azharuddin won from Moradabad. There were several such precedents where the Congress was in a strong position and could win the elections, but he refused.

He said he will not do anything unless the Congress high command (Sonia Gandhi) told him to do so.

If you recall, Dr Manmohan Singh too was told to contest from Punjab for his second term, but he refused and maybe the Congress high command did not give him the go-ahead then. And therefore, he stuck to Rajya Sabha elections.

In 2017, Ahmed Patel was not keen to contest the Rajya Sabha seat from Gujarat, but Sonia Gandhi prodded him to fight.

It was a tough fight and it was Sonia's maturity to make him contest the elections. Had it been anyone else on the Congress ticket, the party would have lost the seat.

To rewind, how did Patel come into contact with the Gandhi family? And how did he built this kind of trust with the family, primarily with Sonia Gandhi?

This is a fascinating story. He was not close to Sanjay Gandhi though he the won 1977 election (which the Congress lost). Before that too he was part of the Gujarat Congress.

He was not in the core Sanjay Gandhi group the way Ambika Soni was or for that matter Ghulam Nabi Azad was or Priya Ranjan Das Munshi.

Ahmed Patel came into prominence more due to Rajiv Gandhi, who made him parliamentary secretary in 1984.

The Congress party has 12-13 family trusts like the Indira Gandhi Memorial, Jawaharlal Nehru Trust and later on the Rajiv Gandhi Trust. There are many trusts of the Congress party and if you see the lease agreements of these trusts, he is a member and that gave him access (to the Gandhis).

His added advantage was that he was a low-key personality and was never the 'I, me, myself' kind of person.

How did he enter Sonia Gandhi's inner circle?

Sonia being the wife of Rajiv Gandhi was a bit of aloof from politics, but she was watching what Arun Nehru, M L Fotedar or R K Dhawan were doing. She had a ringside view of all the Congress players.

And when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated all of a sudden in 1991 that completely led to Sonia's world collapsing overnight.

When P V Narasimha Rao became the prime minister of India he had uneasy ties with 10 Janpath (Sonia Gandhi's residence).

One person who was a hindrance for Rao was Vincent George who was a close Rajiv Gandhi aide and later became a close Sonia Gandhi aide. And Rao tried to get a backroom channel to reach Sonia Gandhi.

It was Narasimha Rao who identified Ahmed Patel. He would then clear the misunderstandings Sonia had about Rao.

While Sonia was using different people to get different opinions from people like Arjun Singh, Vincent George and K Karunakaran, M L Fotedar was used to attack Rao and through him Rao was kept in check.

There was a need for someone who had to be used as a second channel, a backroom person, to have some kind of normalcy (with Sonia). And it is here Ahmed Patel that stepped in.

What about the Sitaram Kesri era in the Congress? What was Ahmed Patel's role then?

It was a very uncertain time when the Congress party was tottering. Post the Babri Masjid demolition, Sonia started interacting with groups of Congress leaders and Ahmed Patel led by leaders like Digvijaya Singh prevailed upon Sonia to take a more active role.

Often, they would tell her that the Nehru-Gandhi family name would be over and all their good work for the country will go down the drain.

And if you recall, Ahmed Patel did not become a minister in the Rao government. He was in the Rajya Sabha and he used his goodwill in the party and kept communicating with Sonia and told her to take an interest in politics. It was a sustained campaign from his side.

When the Sitaram Kesri era began, a lot of people started quitting the Congress though Kesri was quite fond of Ahmed Patel.

Kesri was the Congress treasurer and Ahmed Patel replaced him. It was a very significant development as in Congress politics those who are in the thick of things get this post.

There was an election among Sitaram Kesri, Sharad Pawar and Rajesh Pilot for the Congress president's post.

I recall Pawar then coined a slogan in the Congress party against Kesri, 'What is Kesri? Teen Miyan aur Meira'. The 'Teen Miyan' being Ahmed Patel, Tariq Anwar and Ghualm Nabi Azad plus Meira Kumar.

He used to mock them that Kesri only had a cadre of Muslims and Dalits. Pawar and Pilot lost that elections and Ahmed Patel came into prominence.

What happened after the Kesri era?

When Sonia became the president of the party there were anti-establishment people who had left the Congress like Madhavrao Scindia, S Bangarappa and Arjun Singh. And there were others who were loyal to Rao like Pranab Mukherjee, J B Patnaik and Jitendra Prasad.

What Sonia did was to look for non-controversial faces. In that both Ahmed Patel and Ambika Soni became political secretary to the Congress president.

In 1999, Ahmed Patel had a tiff with Vincent George when he quit party posts and was in the doghouse for a few months. He resigned as AICC treasurer too.

Sonia Gandhi did not like this act of impulse. She wanted to strike a balance. At this time Ahmed Patel was helped by Madhavrao Scindia and Motilal Vora, who told Sonia to bring him back. He was later brought in and Vincent George then faded away.

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