For those who have known Union Minister Prahlad Singh Patel, his name in last week’s Pegasus list, along with Railways & IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, came as a surprise. “After all, he is someone who puts it all out there… Where was the need to know more?” says a senior BJP leader who has known Patel since he was Minister of State for Coal in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Cabinet between 1999 and 2004.
In the weeks before the Pegasus row, the 61-year-old was in another list: the much-talked-about Cabinet reshuffle, where the five-time Lok Sabha MP and BJP leader for over two decades was moved from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, where he held Independent charge, to the post of a junior minister in the Food Processing and Jal Shakti departments — a shift that many saw as a “demotion”.
Yet, it’s his presence in the Pegasus list, along with as many as 15 family members and associates, including his wife Pushpalata, media advisor Nitin Tripathi, and even his cook and gardener, that caused raised eyebrows about this seemingly extraordinary interest in him. His phone was added to the list around mid-2019, soon after he was inducted into the Modi Cabinet.
After keeping silent for a few days, Patel said he was as surprised at the development. “I never felt that the government was snooping on me. I’m not such a big man,” he said.
Patel has had his share of political upheavals during his rise from students’ union president representing the BJP’s Yuva Morcha in Madhya Pradesh’s Jabalpur University to a minister in two Union Councils — Vajpayee’s and Modi’s.
He first entered politics as the district in-charge of the BJP youth wing in Seoni. It was from here that he contested his debut Lok Sabha elections in 1989 as an Independent. The win soon gave him an entry into the BJP.
In 2003, the BJP came to power in MP with Uma Bharati uprooting the decade-old Congress government led by Digvijaya Singh. Patel emerged as her closest confidant, with both prominent leaders of the Lodhi community. Soon, Patel had moved to Delhi as Coal minister in the Vajpaee-led government.
When Bharati, facing riots charges in the Hubli flag case, fell out with the BJP after the party picked Shivraj Singh Chouhan as CM, and floated her own Bharatiya Jan Shakti Party in 2005, Patel walked out with her, a rebellion that marked him out as a man in the anti-Chouhan camp.
“Patel left the party against the advice of senior leaders like Arun Jaitley who tried to assure him that he was next in line for the top post in MP,” said a senior officer.
Not long after, Patel had a bitter parting of ways with Bharati over control of their fledging party. He returned to the BJP fold in 2009, and in 2014, won his fourth term as MP from Damoh. He retained the seat in 2019.
In his five terms as MP, Patel has also represented two other Lok Sabha constituencies — Seoni twice, and Balaghat once. In 2004, he had contested against Kamal Nath from Chhindwara but lost.
His friends and political opponents attribute this constituency-hopping to Patel’s “tendency to pick fights” with local BJP leaders from wherever he contested.
“Unka ek akhkhad tareeke ka swabhav hai (He has an abrasive nature),” says Lakhan Ghangoria, the Congress MLA from Jabalpur East, and a former minister. Ghangoria and Patel were student leaders at Rani Durgvati Vishwavidyalay in Jabalpur, from where both graduated in 1982 with a BSc. “But we shared no bitterness. After fighting each other during the day, we shared a meal at night,” recollects Ghangoria.
“He does not seem to have changed at all from his days as a student leader… he continues to practise the same kind of politics,” says a senior BJP leader in MP.
The Patels hold considerable clout in Narsinghpur, where the family has business interests in sand mining. In June 2019, Patel’s son Prabal and his younger brother Jamal Singh Patel’s son Monu were booked for attempt to murder over a fight with a rival sand mining group. Jalan Singh, a BJP MLA from Narsinghpur, too faces an attempt to murder and rioting case.
In March this year, Patel undertook a symbolic 75-km padayatra as part of India @75, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet project, which was flagged off by the PM himself. The same month, President Ram Nath Kovind visited Damoh at Patel’s behest for a tribal welfare programme. Patel was also among the key campaigners for the BJP in the West Bengal Assembly elections, and while the party lost, it fared well in North Bengal, an area which Patel was handling, winning 25 of 42 seats.
Patel’s standing appears to have taken a beating with the BJP losing the May 2021 bypolls from Damoh, by over 17,000 votes to the Congress, in a surprise result. “Patel is a senior Lodhi leader so was the BJP candidate, Rahul Lodhi. BJP’s Damoh district in-charge is also Lodhi, yet we lost the seat,” points out a minister in the Chouhan Cabinet. After the loss, there were rumblings about major differences among local party leaders.
While some believe Patel was moved out of the Culture Ministry as a fallout of this loss, others wonder at this, given how he hardly took a step out of turn in the post. “He got a lot of work done that suited the Sangh narrative, be it announcing Rakhigarhi as an iconic tourist site, or funding Haryana’s Krishna Circuit project, or firefighting for the Central Vista project,” says an RSS functionary.
Patel is ambiguous about his change of roles. Asked about it by The Sunday Express, he said, “I give my best shot to the responsibilities I have been assigned, rest is not for me to say but for you to evaluate.”
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