The passing of Ahmed Patel, known to all as Ahmed bhai, is a deep personal tragedy for those who have known him closely and a monumental setback for the Congress. The go-to person for any personal or institutional crisis, he leaves behind innumerable known and anonymous beneficiaries of his generosity and sagacity. We will, of course, get accustomed to the grief and sorrow — that is human nature, after all. But it seems that things for us in the Congress will never be the same. It felt that way when we gathered at his house to bid him goodbye, alas in the absence of mortal remains due to the strict COVID-19 restrictions, surrounded by masked familiar faces that have been part of the world he sustained and nurtured unnoticed.
The complex relationships that form the body of the party were known to Ahmed bhai like the palm of his hand. How many times and where he might have intervened to help, counsel, encourage or reassure would be known to him and the person concerned only. He had his favourites, like we all do, but that fact was never resented or complained of. Instead, generations of aspirants hoped to become his favourite. It was not something sought to be measured in worldly benefits, just the comfort of knowing that he thought of you favourably.
When our top leadership says that it will be difficult to replace Patel for the many remarkable things he was and for his devotion to the cause of the party, it is not just hyperbole caused by grief and a sense of loss. After all, from being a young party leader under Indira Gandhi to being an indispensable adviser to Rajiv Gandhi, Narasimha Rao, Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, the late leader had acquired an institutional stature. Having donned an understated political personality with an arms-length approach to the media, he was nonetheless a confidant of innumerable top journalists, civil servants and politicians from across the party. But the understated demeanour and quiet confidence on the surface, like still waters, ran very deep. There was so much, perhaps all there was to know, that he kept discreet. Some short-sighted people might think that his kind of politics was fast becoming a thing of the past but in truth we needed him now more than ever.
Patel will be missed by our leaders as indeed by loyal party workers. The Congress party will miss Ahmed bhai in whom we saw the invincibility and sustenance of our ideological beliefs and secrets of our organisational strength. We are all much diminished in the untimely demise of the gentle giant of our times.
Having come from Ankleshwar in Gujarat, Ahmed bhai, who grew up to all but rule the capital of India, has quietly returned home. In recent years, he did sometime talk about returning to Ankleshwar but each time, we knew it could not be and that he surely knew so as well. But the ways of god are mysterious and unpredictable. Thousands of Ahmed bhai’s admirers and well-wishers who constantly prayed for him would have not for a moment thought that their prayers would not be answered.
Coomi Kapoor writes | Ahmed Patel: Congress loses chief crisis manager, Gandhis their pillar in the backroom
COVID-19 has been very harsh to the whole world and every life lost to the pandemic has reminded us of the insignificance of the human being when confronted by the wrath of nature. But amongst others, the loss of Pranab Mukherjee and Ahmed bhai has deprived not the Congress alone but the country of a unique combination of head and heart that will need another lifetime to replace — if at all, a replacement is possible. Both were very different and yet alike: One being comfortable at the frontline as indeed at private conferences; and the other content to guide matters from behind the lines. One never diffident about words in public, but the other communicating with silences. What they shared was a deep knowledge of the Congress party. Dada wrote about it with a flourish but sadly Ahmed bhai did not get the chance to record his part of the story, leaving us impoverished in knowledge even as the sinking thought reminds us: Bare shawq se sun raha tha zamana/Hum hi so gaye dasta kehte kehte (The world was listening in rapt attention/ But we dozed off while telling the tale).
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 27, 2020, under the title ‘Leading from behind’. The writer is a senior Congress leader, and former Union Minister