Ahmed Patel, the man who served Congress darbar, BJP politics
Congress leader Ahmed Patel, who died after a long battle with COVID in Gurgaon on Wednesday (November25), served both the Congress and the BJP in a unique way. By doing this, he unintentionally turned his public life into a metaphor for the politics pursued by both the parties during the prime of his political career.
Congress leader Ahmed Patel, who died after a two-month-long battle with COVID in Gurgaon on Wednesday (November25), served both the Congress and the BJP in a unique way. By doing this, he unintentionally turned his public life into a metaphor for the politics pursued by both the parties during the prime of his political career.
Patel’s role in the Congress doesn’t require much explaining. For the Congress, Patel was a symbol of the darbar culture that prevailed in the party. In political parties that are essentially pseudo monarchies, power is wielded primarily by those who display two virtues — loyalty and trust — as against leaders with their own following on the ground. So, as the wazier (chief minister) of the head of the darbar, mainly Sonia Gandhi, Patel wielded enormous power that was vested in him by virtue of being the eyes, ears and sometimes even the brain of the party leader, even when he lacked the ability to contest an election even in his home state. If you are fond of cinema, you can think of Patel as Sivagami’s Katappa, with the liberty to whisper in her ears.
All Indian waziers aspire to be called the Chanakya of their times. And, it is indeed Patel’s greatest achievement that he was once the sole claimant to that moniker till a fellow Gujarati stripped him of the title with an additional quality — the ability to win electoral battles.
But, for almost 10 years between 2003 and 2013, Patel was the most powerful person in India without a public post. Cabinet ministers, chief ministers and corporate honchos pined for his attention; the Congress president and the Prime Minister relied on his advice; and the opposition leaders dialled his number everytime they needed something from the ruling dispensation. Such was his proximity and importance to Sonia Gandhi that she asked Patel to keep a mobile phone exclusively for her calls, lest important seconds were wasted trying to reach him on a busy phone.
For the BJP, Patel was a symbol of its divisive politics that relies heavily on creating a fictional enemy, from the other side of the Hindu-Muslim divide. Ironically, Patel served the interests of the BJP under Modi and Shah in a tragic sort of way not only because of where he had reached but also because of where he had come from.
In every election since 2002, as a Gujarati Muslim who could be used to arouse the fear of a chief minister from the “other” side, Patel was often the target of communal barbs in his home state. In the communally charged atmosphere of the state in the aftermath of the Godhara incident, he was often invoked in political speeches and rallies as ‘Miyan’ Ahmed Patel — the man who would sneak through the backdoor into the CM’s chair if the Congress were to win in the state. This clever ploy helped the BJP achieve two things — keep alive the narrative of the Congress being a party that favours the minorities and sow seeds of doubts and insecurity in the minds of state Congress leaders who aspired to lead it.
Patel never showed interest in taking up a ministerial job at the Centre or being the chief minister of Gujarat. But, by crying ‘Miyan Patel’, as it were, the BJP managed to keep a large section of Hindu voters away from the Congress who may have otherwise voted for the Congress, at least in 2017 when the BJP government appeared to have become hugely unpopular. In a way, it can be argued, Patel helped Modi and Shah retain Gujarat and destroy the local Congress leadership.
Patel’s other use for the BJP was based on the chess-inspired adage that to checkmate the king, attack the wazier. So, Patel found himself under relentless attacks in the Modi-Shah era in connection with allegations of graft, especially the AgustaWestland chopper deal where ‘AP’ was rumored to be the biggest beneficiary of alleged kickbacks, a charge that could not be proven in his lifetime. Ironically, the allegations helped India learn a little more about the Congress party’s master puppeteer as they forced him to step out of the dark corridors and defend himself in Parliament, thus making a rare speech in a career as parliamentarian that spanned five decades.
When the corona pandemic began, many people, including journalists, were surprised to get a call from Patel, asking them to take care of themselves. He also exhorted them to call him without hesitation if they needed help. Ironically, the ailment he wanted others to guard against claimed Patel’s life.
There is, unfortunately, an eerie sense of foreboding in his death for those who can see the link between his life and the party he served.
The decline of the Congress coincided with the political descent of Ahmed Patel. Around the time Rahul Gandhi was steering the party to a bottomless pit by creating his own coterie of Babalog who were to later betray him, Patel had been removed as the party’s treasurer (later reinstated) and lost his role as wazier to the new boss. In Rahul’s Congress, he was even vilified as the leader of the old guard that was not keen on letting the new leader succeed. Patel remained steadfastly loyal to Sonia Gandhi, and retained his political relevance but with reduced heft and influence.
The party that he once kept under the baton of the Gandhis has gradually degenerated into a barely functional anarchy where even pusillanimous darbaris are threatening a revolt. Patel’s life and its vicissitudes were almost in sync with the fortunes of the Congress. Is his demise the finale of this shared destiny? We will find out soon.