All-in-one President’s man

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June 1st, 2011 Aditi Phadnis

It’s that time of the year again. Ahmad Patel is out, meeting people, networking, assessing, evaluating. A Cabinet reshuffle is nigh. And who else will manage it if not the political advisor to the Congress President?

Background

Ahmad Patel has been a constant in the Congress through all these years, although many other ambitious Muslims in the party have deserted it. When the rest of India fell to a wave of anti-Congressism and the Janata Party came to power after the 1977 general election it was Gujarat that saved the day for the Congress, sending to the Lok Sabha a handful of MPs. Then under 30, Patel was elected from his native Bharuch district, a region that still swears by him though it may not elect him from there any more.

Today, when younger politicians question Patel’s political antecedents (he has been a member of the Rajya Sabha from 1993) they are probably unaware that he was not 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 82.

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 –- 1980-84 -– 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. Eyewitnesses recall that whenever Gandhi visited Gujarat, Ahmed Patel would rush toward his aircraft carrying a plastic bag containing sev bhusa, chura and peanuts, Gujarati delicacies that Gandhi was particularly fond of. When Indira Gandhi was assassinated and Rajiv 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 an MP.

At this time, Gandhi had as his closest advisors, a team of three -– known as the Amar Akbar Anthony of the party. Arun Singh, his Doon School friend became Amar; Oscar Fernandes, the man with a penchant for Indian classical dance, became Anthony; and Ahmad Patel become Akbar.

By 1986, Gandhi had formalised his plan to substitute the older Congress leaders with his own boys. Patel was sent back to Gujarat as the president of the party unit in the state. The more flamboyant Muslim leaders of the time, like Tariq Anwar, Ghulam Nabi Azad, and Arif Mohammad Khan found themselves eclipsed. Slow and steady Patel plodded on in the race, eventually to win it.

This is partly because of Patel’s reputation for personal integrity. After Gandhi’s death, there were blandishments aplenty: 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 Heptullah, got his guest accommodation in Delhi’s Meena Bagh. Rao was having none of that. His 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 real earnest by his widow Sonia in the years after his assassination. In fact, 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 which was rejected with dignity and becoming grace by Gandhi. It was Patel who worked tirelessly to raise money and drove contractors and others to finish the project. Since its inception, the Foundation has undertaken work that has been non-partisan and free from party affiliations. Patel has been a trustee of the Jawahar Bhavan and the RGF ever since.

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 ND Tewari, he did not join the group that tried to break from the Congress during the Rao regime, although personally and politically he got little from the Rao years of the Congress except membership of the Congress Working Committee, the penultimate political decisionmaking authority in the party. 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 has created as a result of holding so many party positions. This was demonstrated most clearly during the party conference in Tirupathi 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 a period of great instability in Indian politics, but it was nothing compared to the instability in the Congress. Much of the politics in the Congress was dictated by the governments it had been supporting. When Sitaram Kesri was elected Congress President, Ahmad Patel lobbied strongly for Kesri against Sharad Pawar, one of Narasimha Rao’s ministers who was also in the running for the same job.

After more than seven years of widowhood and silence, Sonia Gandhi couldn’t take the decimation of the Congress any more and decided to jump into the fray herself. In 1999, Jitendra Prasad, for a while Political Advisor to Narasimha Rao, decided to take on Sonia Gandhi. He wasn’t serious about the contest: he just wanted Sonia Gandhi to tell him to retire. Patel told him she would invite him to tea. He kept waiting. The invitation never came. This was Patel to Gandhi, telling her it was better to win the presidentship and then invite Prasada to call on her.

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 in Gujarat in 30 minutes by making a few phone calls. Reporters have been witness to sackfulls of currency notes going through his office to ‘facilitate’ this or that election. And yet, till today, there has never been a single charge of financial malfeascence against Ahmad Patel even after he was appointed treasurer of the party (1996-2000).

This largely because he is personally a man of austere habits. He is not one to wine and dine or have kabab and biryani parties to win friends and influence people. There are two occasions when corruption charges were voiced against him: and he announced that if they were proved he would quit politics. One was by former Mizoram Governor Swaraj Kaushal some decades ago; and the other, more recently was his role in funding an operation to secure the support of some BJP MPs to get them to quit their party and vote in favour of the ruling coalition, during the final confidence motion against the Manmohan Singh government after the Left parties pulled out. Patel was exonerated by a parliamentary committee that went into the incident.

It is not that Patel is a particularly prosperous man. His money belongs to his wife whose family owns large tracts of land in Bharuch and were local zamindars. He himself is fondly referred to as “Babu” in his village Piraman in Ankaleshwar, Bharuch. It was he who encouraged the chemical industry development at Ankleshwar and especially the Jamnagar refinery, something that brought him extremely close to the Ambani family, both father Dhirubhai and son Mukesh. Patel was also instrumental in bringing IPCL’s Gandhar project to Bharuch in the early 1990s which was initially planned in Andhra Pradesh. The project created huge employment  opportunities for the locals.  But it was Patel who sat on a one-day fast in November 1994, to call attention to the environmental dangers of additional chemical industry development in the area.

But Patel’s links with Bharuch began to break when he lost the Lok Sabha election in 1989. Since 1993, he has been taking the Rajya Sabha route to politics.

Patel is deeply religious. And yet, he doesn’t keep the beard and the shervani, symbols associated with religion. For, like Kamlapati Tripathi the doyen of the Congress who said that those who wanted to break the Babri Masjid would first have to break their pickaxes on his head, Patel too understands and is accepting of other religions including Hinduism, in the best Congress tradition.

But equally, in the best Congress tradition, he is not a particularly profound or inspiring politician. His speeches are pedestrian, his interventions are sensible rather than brilliant and he is a middle-of-the-road politician, an ordinary man of simple habits. Neither his children nor their spouses have embarrassed him  by showing any inclination to join politics. He handles money –- a lot of it -– but it leaves him unmoved.

The key to his politics is knowing key persons on first name basis. Congressmen who have never been heard of, know Ahmad Patel. The party is his party. He knows everyone, can anticipate how they will react, knows their backgrounds, knows what they will say. This makes him an institution in the Congress, a walking talking repository of institutional memory.

Patel has some peculiar traits. He works late in the night and Congressmen deep in the land of Nod are woken up by his call at 2 am, asking them to do this or that. He is extremely organised in the way he works: one mobile telephone is kept free all the time for calls from 10 Janpath. He never gossips, there is no loose talk and he has a thorough understanding of the bureaucracy and whom to deploy where.

8 Votes | Average: 4.88 out of 58 Votes | Average: 4.88 out of 58 Votes | Average: 4.88 out of 58 Votes | Average: 4.88 out of 58 Votes | Average: 4.88 out of 5 (8 votes, average: 4.88 out of 5)
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2 Responses to “All-in-one President’s man”

  1. Suresh Mandan USAs Says:

    He is a spent force even in Bharuch Distt. except for the Cong.I.His visits are unknown and go unreported

  2. Abhinav Says:

    When will you start calling a spade a spade or a manipulator a manipulator.
    Just because things are accepted, they don’t become right. If he raises money in minutes, he would be giving something in return over years to those who give him money.
    He deploys Babus and by what authority, he is just another symbol of idol worship and malaise in Congress that don’t allow it to become a people’s party.

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