'I don't think Modi is PM material... Because of his nature, because of his arrogance...'
'A prime ministerial candidate is one who can carry others with him. The quality of statesmanship which ought to be there is missing,' Ahmed Patel, the most powerful man in the Congress party after the Gandhis, tells Rediff.com's Sheela Bhatt in a rare and exclusive interview.
The second part of a rare and exclusive interview, which was conducted during the Gujarat assembly election campaign.
Have you read Part I of the exclusive interview with Ahmed Patel?
What kind of a boss is Sonia Gandhi?
Soniaji has never ever tried to impose herself as a boss. She is as democratic as our leaders have been in the past. She believes in democracy.
Whenever a decision has to be taken, she discusses the matter with people, she has discussions with other party leaders and friends as well.
It's not as if she only has discussions with her political secretary (Ahmed Patel is Sonia Gandhi's political secretary), she talks to other leaders in the core group, with the general secretaries, and takes their opinion before taking a decision.
Generally, she always observes protocol. Before taking any decision she will talk to the person 'in charge' of the state concerned. She has never cultivated her image as a boss.
She observes and maintains the kind of relationship that must exist between the Congress president and other senior colleagues of the party.
She is alert about taking other people's opinions before she takes any decision.
'Sonia Gandhi is a first-class human being'
Is she hot tempered? How do you see her?
She is a normal human being. When she is in the role of Congress president, she fulfils that role.
When she is the elder in a family, she plays that role. In social situations, she performs accordingly.
She is a first-class human being.
Is it tough to work with her?
When it is needed, when she feels the need for it, she can be a tough taskmaster.
On occasions she has expressed her anger too when a job is not done the way it should be. She expresses her disappointments too.
You have coordinated things for 10 years with Sonia Gandhi. What is your special talent?
No, no, it is not a question of talent! I cannot judge my strengths and weaknesses, only an observer can be a judge. Anyway, gaadi chale che! (the train is running on track!).
'Rahul knows how much respect to give senior leaders'
Earlier, you said that Rahul Gandhi is No 2...
Well, he is a leader and he is No 2 after the Congress president. He is our leader. What more you want to know?
What is the difference between working with Sonia and Rahul Gandhi?
Nothing! There is no difference! A leader is a leader. And I must say that he treats everyone with respect, behaves respectfully, he behaves towards them in the manner fitting to their seniority.
This is nothing new, Panditji (Jawaharlal Nehru) also behaved similarly with his senior colleagues; Indiraji (former prime minister Indira Gandhi) too behaved similarly with other leaders. Whether junior or senior, Indiraji and Rajivji (former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi) also, behaved in an appropriate manner with all. There is nothing new in this. He (Rahul) has inherited this behaviour.
Rahul knows how much respect to give senior leaders who have vast experience. He consults them, exchanges views. He is participating in the dialogue process and he knows this process well.
'Rahul has to decide what he wants'
Would you be able to work with him, the way you have worked with his mother?
Of course, of course! I don't have the slightest problem with it. Not at all! I have been working with him.
I take the advice of Soniaji. I take the advice of Rahulji. And if Rahulji has something to convey to me, he calls me himself.
I don't have any issue at all. No, not even the slightest problem! I face no obstacles.
When are you going to bring Priyanka Gandhi into politics?
I do not know. The Congress president has categorically said on many occasions that she has never imposed her children (on the party).
When the time comes, the children are free to take their own, independent decisions.
I cannot speak on behalf of Soniaji. But ultimately, they are also independent people. When the moment arises, they will decide what is appropriate.
At the moment she (Priyanka) is not in politics, Rahulji is there. And Rahulji is doing a good job. I cannot say anything about Priyankaji, I cannot comment on her.
Do you feel the Congress had a severe setback in Uttar Pradesh? The defeat was a resounding one.
That is all right. In any election such things happen. Why do you talk only of Uttar Pradesh? There is Tamil Nadu where we lost.
Well, Rahul Gandhi spearheaded the Uttar Pradesh campaign...
It is not like that. He campaigned in other areas as well, he campaigned in Gujarat too. He worked very hard and everybody appreciates it. He has tried to reach the grassroots level, raised issues, put them before the people.
People have not voted for the Congress this time. We have no issue with it. He has tried to create a base for the party. And that we should appreciate.
Do you think Rahul Gandhi will become prime minister after the next election?
Yes, I am optimistic. It will depend on Rahul Gandhi. He will decide after the election. He has to decide what he wants.
I am confident that we will get the majority in 2014 and Rahul Gandhi must become prime minister of India. It is in the interest of the country.
'There is no groupism in the Congress party'
I would like to ask some personal questions. You have worked so much, at such a senior level, as Sonia Gandhi's political secretary. But there are many charges against you.
The first is that the Congress has a darbari culture. That Sonia Gandhi is not accessible, that she listens to only a few people and, that in the Congress party only few people at the top matter.
Don't you think these allegations are well-founded?
Every political party has some peculiar dynamics. Take the National Democratic Alliance, take the Bharatiya Janata Party. They have a syndicate and a group of people around it who control matters.
Remember, it was said that there are few people around A B Vajpayee who took decisions. People used terms like 'dubious gang of four' (chandal chokdi) and other such terms...
So, it's not a new thing. I don't want to criticise any other party. Nor I want to criticise those blaming our party. The bottom-line is that you can't give everything to everyone all the time.
Everyone cannot be pleased, whether it is the distribution of tickets or giving ministerial posts.
Even giving posts at taluka or district levels, there are countless aspirants and you cannot satisfy everyone.
Under the circumstances, at least, someone should be around who can play the role of a buffer! My role is that of a buffer.
Someone has to be a punching bag. You need someone with whom you can get angry on. It doesn't bother me much.
My leadership tells me to implement something and I try to do it honestly and competently.
This is quite a normal thing and not unusual to the Congress, every party faces this particular situation.
I wanted to ask you about groupism within your party. It was much more when the Arjun Singh style leaders were around. Now even Ambika Soni, Digvijay Singh have their groups.
No, there is no groupism. They are valuable colleagues and whatever relationships we have, they are not just political.
We have social interactions too. Our relations are warm.
It is okay they may have different opinions. But within all this we express ourselves frankly to each other, they tell me what they want to say and I express myself to them also.
But these do not get in the way of our political or social relationships and will not get into our way in the future.
'Propaganda to call me Modi's friend'
One of the major charges against you is that you are Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's friend...
Absolutely baseless! That is a well-planned BJP strategy by persons at the top. This is part of a whispering campaign. What do I care?
I have good relations and on record, I would like to say that after becoming chief minister, he has neither come to my home nor have I visited his bungalow.
In the beginning, we interacted during festivals like Id or Diwali. But even that has not happened since the last two years.
I can remember the last time we met was at Ahmedabad airport when the blasts had taken place. I had accompanied the Congress president on a visit and at that time we exchanged namaskars.
We have had no conversations since then. All this is false propaganda and unfortunately, some of our people have also contributed to these falsehoods.
How do you defend the fact that the Congress party in Gujarat has continued to be weak even while you are such a powerful leader?
If you see the kind of situation that has developed over the last ten years, it would be a challenge for any party, any leader, to counter it.
Of course, whatever leadership that is there, they have worked hard, especially in the last two, three years.
But the false propaganda, the events of 2002, it will take time to set all this right.
Gujarat is a different type of state. It is not an easy job.
I must salute, appreciate the grassroots workers of the Congress, they have worked for so many years with no rewards.
They have not got tickets or any advantages. On the contrary, they have had not a moment's rest. They continue to work and that is a great thing.
They have survived in the villages through small and big programmes. I acknowledge and accept that they have worked in very difficult circumstances.
'Modi tried to become popular by manipulation'
But you don't have a leader in Gujarat! There is Modi on one side and a void on the other!
How can you say that?!
Once someone becomes chief minister, he can become a leader!
People have not been born chief ministers. They have fought elections and have become leaders.
The Congress has not been in power for years and naturally no one will think of who can be the chief minister.
Tomorrow, someone becomes a Congress chief minister, he will establish himself as a leader too.
Would you say, all said and done, that Narendra Modi is a popular leader?
I am sorry I don't agree with that. It is all gimmicks.
His marketing is solid, a great deal of money has been spent. He had tried to become popular by manipulation.
People have a notion, and the feeling that a wind is blowing in his favour is achieved through propaganda.
One has to accept that he has created an impression, rightly or wrongly. Ultimately, this will not work in the long run. People have realised that now.
What are your insights about him?
I have not seen him closely; the impression I have gathered is from the newspapers and there is an opinion that he is prime ministerial material, but I don't agree.
Because of his nature, because of his arrogance.
A prime ministerial candidate is one who can carry others with him. The quality of statesmanship which ought to be there is missing.
As a Gujarati, if any Gujarati -- except Narendra Modi or Ahmed Patel -- becomes prime minister, I would be pleased and proud.
But at the same time, the direction he wants to move after becoming prime minister, he has to lead not Gujarat, but the country.
So he should be able to think of the welfare of the whole country.
The theory goes that Modi's win in Gujarat helps the Congress in polarising the national scene in its favour.
Rubbish! The Congress has never done so. What's the use of an advantage in New Delhi if we lose in Gujarat?
In politics we never think like that. This is the thinking of a narrow mind. It's a baseless allegation.
'I appreciate how secular we Gujaratis are!'
Photographs: Courtesy: Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee Web site
How many years have you been in politics?
I started my political career in 1971-1972 as vice-president of the Youth Congress, then I became a member of the taluka panchyat, then president.
Then I went to Parliament and after that worked mostly with the organisation. Indiraji appointed me party joint secretary, then Rajivji made me secretary, then I became treasurer.
I was president of the Jawahar Bhavan, president of the Youth Congress and Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee chief. Then I became political secretary to Soniaji.
What positions would you like now?
I don't want anything. I have completed 63, I will work for another two, three years as best as I can; then I will start an NGO and will live life peacefully, spend time with my family.
I would like to work among the Adivasi communities and others who are really the poorest of the poor and most marginalised.
Why and how did you enter politics?
By accident, by default.
One day we were sitting in my village, Piraman. The panchayat elections were to take place and at that time a Jinabhai Darji committee had been formed. That was the first election for members of the taluka pachayat.
The Darji committee recommended that there should be a constituency for taluka and zilla panchayats too. Three, four villages would form a taluka pachayat seat and four, five talukas should form a zilla panchayat of some 15, 20 villages.
I don't know what impulse drove me then. I went and filled the form and won. The Congress had a majority and my name was put forward for head of the taluka panchayat.
That was the best job, I must say. The satisfaction I got from that post, I have not had to this day.
Then the villages had independent funds and the taluka panchayat had its own funds and through mutual discussions the funds would be spent.
There were so many government schemes, of the state government and central government, in the fields of education, health.
As president I would leave in my jeep in the morning and visit two, three villages and a few more villages in the evening.
People would gather in the villages and report their problems -- we need a road repaired here, a bridge there.
The executive engineer would accompany me. The final order would be given, cost estimates were drawn up, the proposal would be made in a week and the administrative committee would give administrative and tactical approval.
After a few weeks we went to the site to see that the work was completed. The satisfaction of this was immense.
We also distributed 400 square yard plots to the poor. I have never seen such happiness on people's faces. And there was a scheme to build homes for Rs 900, Rs 750 was given as subsidy and the rest was the people's contribution and they participated enthusiastically.
It was Indiraji's scheme. In those days people had work for four months only because they were dependent on the rains. What would they do the rest of the year? So they were given cows and buffaloes.
The satisfaction we got in distributing cows and buffaloes was immense.
Seeing the happiness on people's faces is incomparable pleasure! I don't get that kind of satisfaction now.
Have you done farming?
Yes, certainly! I have grown vegetables and accompanied my men to the market at 7 in the morning to auction my produce. I have worked in milk cooperatives too. We ploughed back our profit for the people's benefit.
Why did you never become a minister?
My mindset is such. As minister you can't give justice to people.
What do you do once your term is over? I am working even now for the party.
People consider you a clever politician.
There is nobody as simple and naive as me in politics. People say there is no place for emotion in politics. It's not so. Anyone can emotionally fool me.
There are instances where people have abused me, but later I have forgotten and forgiven them and have helped them without any bias.
How do you survive in such a post with that temperament?
Maybe, that quality has taken me this far! I don't know actually.
Do you regret that being a Muslim hurts your prospects in Gujarat?
Not at all. Circumstances can change and I can win elections. For sometime people's (communal) emotions are exploited. I understand it.
You also know that the people of Gujarat are very secular. They appreciate good work. They don't look at your religion. I appreciate how secular we Gujaratis are!
It is okay a handful of people are using politics to exploit emotions.
In the last five decades no state has given such success to the Congress as Gujarat.
I disagree that Gujarat is a saffron state or communal state. A few people are exploiting it (communal sentiment) for selfish reasons. That doesn't make all Gujaratis communal.
You could never make it big in Gujarat. Why?
I must say people make leaders. You can't become a leader on your own. It is people who accept you and make you a leader.
For Part 3 of Sheela Bhatt's exclusive interview with Ahmed Patel, please click here: 'The BJP has no future'