For Ahmed Patel, May 18, 2004, was an unforgettable day. It was so for his party, too.
On May 13, the BJP, under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had lost the election. The country was surprised by the unexpected victory of the Congress-led UPA.
Ahmed bhai was thrilled as the results poured in. On the night of May 13, he gave me a rare interview, and spoke extensively on Sonia Gandhi. Ahmed bhai was a difficult politician to interview, he would not open up easily. We knew each other since 1980 but I could get him to speak on Sonia Gandhi, on the record, only in 2004.
Listening to him hold forth on Sonia Gandhi in the interview I could gather that Ahmed bhai would, in the coming weekend, muster all the support within the party and from leaders of the non-BJP parties, to ease the passage for her to succeed Vajpayee.
At that point, he seemed to me to be driven by his strong feelings for the late Rajiv Gandhi, more than anything else. He was keen to ensure that “Rajiv’s widow and the inheritor of the Gandhi family’s legacy” would become prime minister. Of course, he was acutely aware of the fierce and focused opposition of the BJP-RSS on the issue of Sonia’s “foreign origins”. However, he thought that once she occupied the seat of power the opposition against her would, to a great extent, wane. After all, he and a few senior Congress leaders had helped make possible the striking metamorphosis of Sonia Gandhi from 1998 onwards, when she became the Congress president.
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In view of the street protests organised by the BJP, it had become clear that the then Congress president’s possible elevation to the highest political office would divide the country. But Ahmed bhai was quintessentially a Gujarati who would find a jugaad for every critical problem.
On the morning of May 18, the Gandhi family met to discuss the pros and cons of the most difficult political decision of their lives. After the family’s private meeting, Ahmed bhai and one more senior Congress leader drove down to 10, Janpath and joined them.
That fateful meeting changed many things and its reverberations eventually became a contributing factor in the rise of Narendra Modi. That’s what Ahmed bhai believed — and shared with me when I met him just 72 hours before Modi won power in New Delhi on May 16, 2014. Then, my question to him was: Why did Congress become so weak after being in power for 10 long years? Amongst many things, he said it was hit by a generation gap and the trust deficit within.
In that historic meeting at 10, Janpath, in May 2004, Patel was told that Sonia Gandhi wouldn’t want the new government to get weakened at the outset by the fierce opposition to her “foreign origins”.
Sonia was graceful and reticent in refusing her party’s offer, but Rahul was agitated in his concern for his mother’s security. He and Patel had a bitter exchange, which may have sowed the seeds of distrust between them, and cost the Congress heavily. It destabilised the decision-making process within the party established under Sonia Gandhi. The lengthening distance between Ahmed bhai, the Congress’s institutional memory-keeper, and Rahul Gandhi, heir to its First Family, only grew since.
Despite being in power at the Centre for a decade, the Congress could not consolidate or expand its presence in the states. There were no significant grassroots activities to ensure a strengthening of the different wings of the party. For a party in power, keeping the organisational activities going is also important, and the absence of it will take a toll — that’s a vital lesson the BJP under Modi’s leadership has learnt from the Congress rule of 2004-2014.
Patel knew the Modi phenomenon better than any Congressman, but he could not get the senior leaders of the party to unite in their fight against the rising wave of Hindutva by understanding and decoding Modi’s strengths and the BJP’s strategies. The Modi-led BJP had been lucky to confront a Congress which has been steadily weakening within since 2004. Modi’s rise was made easier because of fissures within the Congress party.
The narrow and spurious debate of “communal versus secular” wasn’t what Patel recommended to his party. “Eman shun vale (it won’t lead to any outcome)”, he would say when I asked for his views on some sensitive communal matter. The new members of Rahul’s team saw Ahmed bhai as a member of an opposing camp. He faced the allegation of “keeping the party weak in Gujarat to help the rise of Modi”.
Till 2014, Ahmed bhai would get hundreds of calls and several VIP visitors daily. After Rahul became president, he was hardly engaged in party activity. It was only when he played a swift and decisive role to help stitch the unlikely coalition that formed the government in Maharashtra to keep the BJP out of power that party newcomers saw the old Ahmed bhai in action again.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 26, 2020 under the title ‘Congress’s memory-keeper’. The writer is a senior journalist and contributing editor to rediff.com