Sonia Gandhi described Ahmed Patel as an “irreplaceable companion” but, surprisingly, Rahul, who was often not on the same page as him, summed up the loss of Ahmed bhai – as he was widely known – more pithily. Rahul acknowledged him as “one of the pillars of the Congress” – not exactly an understatement from a dynast who assumes that without the first family the party is a hollow shell.
Indeed, Patel, 71, who passed away early Wednesday fighting multiple organ failure post-Covid, was the go-to man whenever the Congress faced trouble.
Which meant quite often.
Whether it was the modalities of tying up with the Shiv Sena for a grand alliance in Maharashtra or tamping down Sachin Pilot’s anger against Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan or allying with Pranab Mukherjee to ensure that Sonia was installed party president in 1997 despite Sitaram Kesri’s refusal to step down gracefully, Ahmed Bhai was on hand to sort out the problem.
Party colleague Jairam Ramesh once described him as a 24 X 7 politician who had more than once come to the rescue of the Congress in the nick of time. He recalled how at well past midnight he put a call through to a Chief Minister who was bent on quitting the party next morning along with his supporters. After a good 50 minutes of humoring, cajoling, mollycoddling the veteran party leader, he saved the party’s government in a north Indian state. As Ramesh noted, not many in the Congress were capable of pulling off such feats, mixing power with persuasion to good effect.
Ahmed Bhai’s strength was his lack of personal ambition or a private agenda, attributes which endeared him to Sonia who retained him as political secretary during her long tenure as party president. He became the eyes and ears of his leader guiding her through choppy waters as a novice politician. He never joined the government, when Congress Prime Ministers PV Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh were in the saddle but remained the eternal backroom manager.
A telephone call from Ahmed Bhai carried more weight than that from any Minister. He was a soft-spoken political operator who exuded old-world courtesy and charm. Shunning the limelight, he listened politely to all sides but nothing escaped his eagle eye.
Since the party chief hardly made herself available for a personal audience, Congressmen used him as the sounding board to get things done. No one in the coterie surrounding Rahul Gandhi today has such attributes. As a result, the party leadership has lost touch with ground-level realities.
Ahmed Bhai’s death could not have happened at a worse time for his party. The Congress recently suffered a humiliating defeat in the Bihar assembly elections, even though its alliance partner, Tejaswi Yadav’s RJD had generously allocated 70 seats. It is unlikely that potential allies in the coming polls in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu will be so accommodating.
Twenty- three senior Congress leaders recently signed a letter demanding introspection, accountability and elections. A step which would normally be construed as rebellious in a hierarchical party. But in its present weakened state, Ahmed Bhai successfully negotiated with the ginger group to reach a compromise acceptable to all. Many of the dissidents were his personal friends. Ahmed Bhai had numerous contacts across the political divide, which often worked to the benefit of his party.
He worked loyally for three generations of the Gandhi family. The son of a wealthy farmer from Bharuch, Gujarat, he started politics as a Youth Congress leader and won a Parliamentary seat from his home district in 1977, when his party received a drubbing in most of north India. He was an eight-time Parliamentarian, thrice from the Lok Sabha.
But after the Congress lost its hold in Gujarat, the BJP tried its best to whittle down his clout . So much so in his 1980 Lok Sabha campaign, BJP workers struck off the name Babubhai, the name by which he then called himself, and inserted Ahmed on his election posters to give the campaign a communal twist.
In his last Rajya Sabha election from Gujarat, despite Amit Shah pulling out all the stops, getting six Congress MLAs to defect, he made it by a hair’s breadth in a nail-biting finish.
I first met Ahmed Bhai back in the early ‘80s. Rajiv Gandhi, as Prime Minister, had appointed him as one of his three Parliamentary secretaries, along with Oscar Fernandes and Arun Singh. The media referred to them as Amar, Akbar and Antony, after a popular movie of that time.
Rajiv had put him in charge of the various family trusts and foundations because he valued his discretion and loyalty. I complained to a mutual friend, the late Murli Deora, that Ahmed Bhai was not at all helpful in providing information. Over the years as we got to know each other better, I looked upon him as a friend first rather than a political contact.
I discovered, in his quiet way, that he could be remarkably straightforward and forthcoming provided you respected his confidence. In Parliament’s Central Hall, journalists would crowd around him when he entered, since he was always willing to share information – but up to a point, without betraying his party and the Gandhis.
To label him a Chanakya, as some have done, would be a misnomer. True, he worked behind the scenes and had enviable contacts in all walks of life, including the business world, which he used to the advantage of his party. His job may have required him to settle disputes and arbitrate on conflicting demands of power centres in the Congress but he carried out his difficult task without ruthlessness or ill will.
Rahul Gandhi, when he first took over as party president, sidelined Ahmed Bhai but later was beginning to realise his worth. He appointed him party treasurer.
A very warm individual, Ahmed Bhai kept in touch during the pandemic inquiring solicitously about my health and that of my husband. Unfortunately, it was he himself and his family which tested positive.
When I messaged my concern, he assured me he was doing well. Unassuming as ever, he and his family checked themselves into a little-known hospital in Ghaziabad run by a friend. It was only as his health took a turn for the worse that he was shifted to a super specialty hospital in Gurgaon.
His party colleagues used to say, “There have been many CPs (Congress Presidents) , but only one AP.” For a party more beleaguered than ever, its national footprint slipping away, AP leaves behind more than one pair of shoes – and each one hard to fill.
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