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Don't mess with Ahmed Patel

By Aditi Phadnis
August 19, 2017 08:00 IST
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The Rajya Sabha election was personal so it had to be won and Amit Shah needed to be sent a message, says Aditi Phadnis.

Ahmed Patel, Sonia Gandhi's political secretary

Rarely, if ever, has there been such a to-do about one Rajya Sabha seat.

The National Democratic Alliance was determined the Congress should not win it.

The Congress was equally clear -- ensuring Ahmed Patel's victory was a prestige issue.

So what is it about this man?

Patel has been a Rajya Sabha member since 1993, and today, when youngsters question his claim to knowing mass politics and talk about the Sultanate that is the Congress, they are probably unaware that he was not just a member of the sixth but also the seventh and eighth Lok Sabha and was president of the Gujarat unit of the Youth Congress from 1977 to 1982.

Patel is the archetypal Gandhi family loyalist.

When Indira Gandhi was licking her wounds in the aftermath of the 1977 reverses, it was Patel (and Sanat Mehta, the Congress stalwart of Surendranagar) who invited her to Bharuch to address public meetings.

She was diffident, they were aggressive.

Eventually, those meetings helped her overcome her demoralisation and script a comeback.

While his election to the sixth Lok Sabha established him as a political leader of promise, it was during his second term in the Lok Sabha -- 1980 to 1984 -- that Patel really came into his own.

Rajiv Gandhi was being groomed to take over and the young, slightly shy Patel found favour with the young leader.

When Indira Gandhi was assassinated and Rajiv Gandhi came to power in 1984 with a brute 400-plus majority in the Lok Sabha, Patel was promoted rapidly as party apparatchik: He was made joint secretary of the Congress, briefly appointed parliamentary secretary and made general secretary of the Congress in addition to handling his responsibilities as a member of Parliament.

Little wonder then, that he knows the party like the back of his hand.

And when the Congress president and the prime minister were two different persons, he had a unique position of power in both government and party, without being a member of the former.

This was a conscious choice.

Through his career he has been offered ministerships half a dozen times. He has always rejected it -- making him one of the most sought-after men in the Congress.

His lowest point was probably the Rao years. P V Narasimha Rao beckoned to offer him a ministership, for he could have done with a credible Muslim face in his council of ministers. Patel rejected all of it.

He had lost the Lok Sabha election. A friend, Najma Heptulla, got him guest accommodation in Delhi's Meena Bagh. Rao was having none of that.

Patel's son and daughter were both taking board exams. In the middle of the exam season, Patel was told he had three days to vacate the house or face action. He hasn't forgotten that to this day.

'Accept something from that man?' his supporters said scornfully later.

What he did accept, however, was the secretaryship of the Jawahar Bhavan Trust, a project begun by Rajiv Gandhi, visualised as a think-tank for the Congress, but pushed in earnest by Sonia Gandhi in the years after his assassination.

The Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, housed in the Jawahar Bhavan premises, was offered -- in the first Budget presented by then finance minister Manmohan Singh -- an outlay of Rs 20 crore (Rs 200 million), which was rejected with dignity by Sonia Gandhi.

It was Patel who worked tirelessly to raise money and drove contractors and others to finish the project.

The appointment, as can be imagined, gave him a unique opportunity denied to other Congressmen -- access to Sonia Gandhi.

Unlike Shiela Dikshit, equally close to Rajiv Gandhi during his days in power, or N D Tewari, he did not join the group that tried to break away from the Congress during the Rao regime, although personally and politically he got little from the regime except membership of the Congress Working Committee.

While he was unfailingly polite to Rao, he never accepted his authority. He never forgave Rao for allowing the Babri Masjid to be demolished and campaigned overtime for his removal when it became clear that there were alternatives to him.

But for Patel those were lonely years, mitigated only by the vast network he had created as a result of holding so many party positions.

This was demonstrated most clearly during the party conference in Tirupati in 1993 where after years, elections were held to the CWC. He got the third highest number of votes, presumably a result of past favours.

The period from 1996 to 2000 was one of great instability in Indian politics, but it was nothing compared to the instability in the Congress.

Much of the politics in the party was dictated by the governments it had been supporting. When Sitaram Kesri was elected Congress president, Patel lobbied strongly for him against Sharad Pawar, who was also in the running for the same job.

Popularity in the party is a double-edged sword. Kesri used to say: 'The Gandhi family is like the sun. You are in danger of getting burnt by it if you get too close to it; but you can't do without its warmth either.'

Patel's closeness to the Gandhi family is undeniable. But unlike others, he resisted the temptation to use it to leverage personal business.

Those who have seen him in action say he can raise Rs 30 crore (Rs 300 million) in Gujarat in 30 minutes by making a few phone calls. Reporters have been witness to sackfuls of currency notes going through his office to 'facilitate' this or that election.

The Rajya Sabha election was personal so it had to be won and Amit Shah needed to be sent a message.

You don't mess with Patel.

Now we wait for the 2019 general election when Shah will almost certainly contest Ahmedabad.

How many seats will the Congress get from Patel's home state?

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Aditi Phadnis
Source: source