There has not been a single election after 2002 “when Modi and the BJP have not dragged Ahmed Patel into a controversy. And now, even when he is dead”, says a Gujarat Congress leader. It’s a day after the SIT probing activist Teesta Setalvad, retired DGP R B Sreekumar and former IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt, in connection with the 2002 riots, filed an affidavit accusing them of acting at the “behest” of Ahmed Patel.
The allegation, saying Patel and the others were part of a conspiracy for “dismissal” of the state government, has seen a war of words break out between the BJP and Congress. State Congress leaders say it is a familiar script, a bid to not just polarise voters but also target the last of the powerful leaders of the party in the state, and through him, Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Patel remained her political secretary and closest aide till his death in November last year due to Covid-related complications.
In 2014, barely a month to go for the Lok Sabha elections which he contested as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Modi called Patel a “friend” during an interview to Doordarshan. The Gujarat Chief Minister at the time, Modi said he had dined at Patel’s house and addressed him as “Babubhai”, a name Patel was known by in his close circles.
Patel refuted Modi’s claims as “ridiculous”, “a political stunt” to “create confusion”. He said he would step down from public life if proved wrong.
“The statement was meant to damage the image of Ahmedbhai and the prospects of the Congress. It made many within our party believe that it was Ahmedbhai who was not letting the Congress win,” says a former Congress MLA.
Apart from Ahsan Jafri, Patel is the only Muslim leader to have won a Lok Sabha seat for the Congress in Gujarat. Both won their first election in 1977, held immediately after the Emergency. Patel was a Lok Sabha MP till 1989 and Rajya Sabha MP from 1993 till his death. (Jafri, who was MP for one term, was killed in the Gulberg Society massacre during the 2002 riots.) A confidant says that despite this, Patel “never wanted to project himself as a leader of the minorities, and always kept a low profile”.
It was after Sonia Gandhi took charge of the party, which coincided with the period after the Babri demolition and the BJP’s rise, that Patel, who belonged to Piraman village in Bharuch, emerged as the Congress’s tallest leader in Gujarat. Soon, he had the final word in all major decisions of the party in the state, from appointments to ticket distribution.
While this also led to charges of favouritism and camps, there was no denying Patel’s skills as a strategist and crisis manager, particularly once the Congress floundered. In an interview after his demise, Patidar leader Hardik Patel, who was in the Congress at the time, told The Indian Express that Patel was the one leader in the party who would always have the candidates’ ears, telling them not to worry, and ensuring financial help for elections.
When he quit the Congress recently and joined the BJP, Hardik’s main complaint against the Congress leadership was slow decision-making.
One of the biggest examples of Patel’s backroom skills was his August 2017 Rajya Sabha win. Seeking a fifth term as MP from Gujarat, Patel’s chances looked wobbly after then Congress Legislature Party leader Shankersinh Vaghela quit with at least a dozen MLAs. One of them, Balwantsinh Rajput, joined the BJP, which immediately fielded him its third candidate. The BJP could win two seats comfortably on the strength of its numbers, and those were to go to Amit Shah and Smriti Irani. Rajput’s nomination was seen as a tactic to draw extra votes and defeat Patel. However, Patel out-tricked the BJP by flying Congress MLAs out to Karnataka, and won.
In an interview to The Indian Express in March this year, Vaghela, despite the 2017 episode, said that the Congress would not have had a G23 had Patel been alive – in a reference to the group of 23 senior leaders who wrote to Sonia Gandhi in August 2020 seeking widespread changes in the party.
Soon after Patel’s Rajya Sabha win, in October 2017, his name featured in an ISIS terror conspiracy when the Gujarat ATS arrested two suspects, one of whom had worked as a technician in the Sardar Patel Hospital and Heart Institute at Ankleshwar, of which Patel had been a patron. Patel refuted insinuations directed at him, saying he was not a trustee of the hospital.
When the Assembly polls came around in December 2017, Modi during the campaign cited a purported Facebook post by “former Pakistan Army Director General” Sardar Arshad Rafiq saying Patel be made the Gujarat CM. “Why is Pakistan’s senior retired army officer exercising his brain in the Gujarat election?” Modi, then in his first term as PM, asked.
Later, before the first phase of the election, posters sprung up in Surat, featuring the Congress symbol, pictures of Ahmed Patel and Rahul Gandhi, and asking Muslims to unite and vote for the Congress to make “Ahmedbhai Patel Gujarat’s Wazir-e-Alam (chief minister)”. The Congress called it a ploy by the BJP to stoke Hindu-Muslim tensions.
A Congress leader says that this was almost similar to what had transpired in the 2012 Assembly elections, when posters had come up in Ahmedabad that “if the Congress wins, Ahmed Patel will become Gujarat CM”. “Nobody knows yet the origin of those posters,” the leader says.
Another leader draws another parallel, to 2002, when there was a “fatwa” by a mufti, urging people to vote for the Congress. The leader says this was done to “cause polarisation”, and that the latest set of allegations against Patel is also meant to do that.
However, many also blame Patel for the state the Congress is in today in Gujarat. Ahmedabad-based political analyst and columnist Hari Desai says, “Ahmed Patel never let anybody from the Gujarat Congress have direct access to Sonia Gandhi. Till date not a single Gujarat Congress leader has the guts to talk to her, unlike in Rajasthan or other states. In a way, the Congress was led to doom under him.” At the same time, Desai adds, “Now that he is not there, those who consider themselves leaders should take up the responsibility and revive the party.”
Despite his protestations, and the party’s now, Patel could never brush off the doubt among some Congress leaders that he was soft on Modi. Patel’s argument was that attacking Modi would “never be a good strategy, as he turned every attack to his advantage”. Patel steered the Congress away from issues that could take on communal tones after 2002, and is believed to have played a crucial role in the party’s “soft Hindutva” card in 2017, with Rahul Gandhi visiting several temples as part of the campaign. The fact that it did not substantially improve the Congress’s fortunes is another matter.
The same observers also point to the fact that while Modi was built up as “invincible”, and hence “untouchable”, the BJP’s tally actually never hit the high post-2002 riots, including when Modi was CM – getting 127 of 182 seats in 2002; 117 in 2007; and 115 in 2012.
In the 2017 elections, the first without him since Modi had become PM, the BJP tally plunged to 99 (its lowest since 1995). The Congress got 77, despite the defections from its ranks. The record for the biggest win in the state still continues to be held by the Congress, 149 in 1985, under Madhavsinh Solanki.
For the coming elections, the BJP has set itself a target slightly higher than that: 152.
Gaurav Pandya, a Congress leader from Valsad, who was close to Patel, says the BJP’s tactics will fail. “The people of Gujarat are emotional and will see through the BJP’s game… This is being done against somebody who is not there to defend himself. We only stand to gain.”
In a tweet on Saturday, Patel’s daughter Mumtaz said: “I guess his (Ahmed Patel’s) name still holds weight to be used for political conspiracies to malign d opposition”. She added that if what the SIT said in its affidavit was true, “Why during UPA years @TeestaSetalvad was not rewarded & made Rajya Sabha member & why the center uptil 2020 did not prosecute my father for hatching such a big conspiracy?”
Mumtaz also said that the BJP seemed to be in the habit of “dragging Ahmed Patel’s name in conspiracy theories” before elections.
Congress leaders said that the idea behind the SIT affidavit was to “castigate Soniaji”. The affidavit by the panel, appointed by the Gujarat government to investigate the allegations of fabrication of evidence and criminal conspiracy against Setalvad, Sreekumar and Bhatt, cites witness accounts to accuse Patel of giving Setalvad nearly Rs 30 lakh.
Gujarat PCC chief Jagdish Thakor asked why the SIT affidavit which was part of a “legal process” had been made public, and wondered at the timing when the state was “facing a disaster (floods) where more than 68 people have died, lakhs of people have become homeless”. “This party (the BJP) works with the mindset that you cannot question it, you cannot raise questions on disasters in the country, on the price rise. They want only their ideology imposed,” Thakor said.
Gujarat government spokesperson and Education Minister Jitu Vaghani dismissed the Congress’s claims, while adding that the SIT “revelations” were “shocking” and had brought out the “political conspiracy” by “Congress president Sonia Gandhi, her late political advisor Ahmed Patel and their gang”.
The Congress’s aggressive defence of Patel though comes lined with the despondent realisation that it really has little hope, having found no replacement for a figure like Patel, seen high-profile efforts like by election strategist Prashant Kishor fail, suffered high-profile defections, and its moribund organisation, which was not seen beyond social media during the recent floods. Then there is the aggressive AAP, which is raring to take the Congress’s space.
In a sign of some activity, the Congress recently appointed Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot as the senior observer for the Gujarat elections. Gehlot was the AICC in-charge of Gujarat during the 2017 Assembly elections.
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