In 1977, at the age of 28, a Youth Congress leader from Gujarat scripted history. Ahmed Patel bucked the massive anti-Congress and anti-Indira wave that had swept the country post-Emergency and won by a handsome margin from the Broach Lok Sabha seat in Gujarat. Forty years later, Patel was at the centre of another nerve-wracking election. He won against all odds this time, too. The only difference this time was that it was not just Patel’s, but the party’s prestige at stake.
Patel, arguably the most powerful and influential leader in the Congress after the Gandhis, has always preferred to operate from behind the scenes. Unlike other politicians, he was not taken in by the lure of television cameras and always remained the quintessential backroom strategist. But today was different. The Congress’s silent crisis manager was himself in crisis, waging the toughest political battle of his career. Known as Sonia Gandhi’s conscience keeper, Patel has worked with four generations of Gandhis. He became an MP for the first time in the elections that Indira Gandhi lost. He won the subsequent two Lok Sabha elections from Broach. He was appointed joint secretary of the AICC in 1983. Soon, he came close to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and was appointed his parliamentary secretary in 1985. It was to be a life-long association with the Nehru-Gandhi family. He has fought only three electoral battles in his life, but has been part of the Congress’s internecine wars for the last three decades from the days of P V Narasimha Rao, when the Prime Minister marked him as one of the many Congress leaders who regularly visit Sonia, who was then still in mourning after the assassination of Rajiv.
Patel faced his biggest political challenge at a time when it was uncertain if he would wield the same kind of influence once Rahul takes the reins.
Patel may be elated and the Congress ecstatic, with the party scoring a huge political victory over a predatory BJP. But even in the victory of Patel, the party has reasons to worry and questions to ponder. The cliffhanger of an election has pushed the Congress in Gujarat into deep crisis, just three months before the Assembly elections. That Patel —- who as political secretary of Sonia resolved crises in the Congress, decided the fate of Congress leaders and installed and uninstalled many in the seats of power —- had to literally slog to get himself elected to the Upper House shows the pass that the Congress has come to.
The large-scale desertion (14 MLAs switching sides) on the back of a rebellion by strongman Shankersinh Vaghela is no good news for the party which is hoping to end the nearly two-decade rule of the BJP in the state elections due in November-December. And in the process, the opposition unity stood shattered with one NCP MLA backing the BJP.
At the end of the day-long see-saw battle, Patel may have won, but party leaders admitted the victory was a mixed bag. They said there was no point arguing that his defeat would have pushed the Congress further into the abyss. It averted that and exposed the BJP’s rather naked horsetrading attempts, once a Congress forte.
In that sense, it was a moral victory. But the big question is how the desertion of its MLAs, the exit of Vaghela and the negative publicity its MLAs earned because of their flight to Bengaluru would affect the party’s election efforts. Vaghela’s exit, like over a dozen top Congress leaders in the past three years, party leaders said, exposed the crisis of leadership in the party. Ever since the BJP came to power at the Centre, the Congress has lost at least three former chief ministers (Ajit Jogi, Vijay Bahuguna and Pema Khandu), five former Union ministers (S M Krishna, G K Vasan, Jayanti Natarajan, Krishna Tirath and Beni Prasad Verma) and many former state party chiefs (Rita Bahuguna, Yashpal Arya, Botcha Satyanarayana and Arvinder Singh Lovely).
Not all have gone to the BJP. The big question is why this exodus. The BJP may certainly be a lure factor. Those who have gone may be power-hungry. But a section of the party admits the Congress top leadership has repeatedly failed to prevent desertions.
At the root of the do-or-die elections that Patel —- who is part of that leadership —- had to face is the exit of Vaghela and the clumsy way it operates in the face of an aggressive BJP. Even while criticising Jairam Ramesh for arguing the party was facing an existential crisis, many leaders privately admitted it is time the Congress addresses the rot.