Why Ahmed Patel mattered in Indian politics
In January of 2014, I received a call from Ahmed Patel, political secretary to the Congress president. His tone was characteristically soft, but this time he had called to profusely apologise. Earlier that week, an interview I was scheduled to do with Rahul Gandhi, locked on his calendar by his sister Priyanka Gandhi, had at the very last moment been given to a colleague from a competing media network. This happened despite several weeks of back-and-forth conversations and multiple dates that were finalised and changed. Not only had I not been given any reasons, I had not even been cursorily informed about the change. I discovered it only when the interview appeared.
Patel, always the old-school politician and very different in that way from the Gandhi siblings, was sheepish and conciliatory. Despite being the most powerful man in the Congress, and this was well before the party became a shriveled up version of itself, he wore his influence lightly. Though he was low-key and non-charismatic in the way we conventionally understand the concept, his great political gift was in building connections. Unlike the usual networking that goes on in power capitals such as New Delhi, he was skilled enough for you to believe, at least for a few moments, that the conversation with you was individual and personal, not just generic and political.
The only other politician I have known who had the exact same gift, was across the political trenches. Arun Jaitley, who also died tragically before his time, was armed with a similar geniality. And, like Patel, he too, could make you believe that the conversation he was having with you was actually about you. Neither of the men displayed any hostility to those who differed with them ideologically; I’d say both enjoyed a degree of jousting, debate and intellectual bantering over those differences. And both deployed a now-extinct strategy of testing an imminent political decision by oh-so-casually throwing it into the conversation to see how you would react. These conversational trial balloons could range from the situation in the Kashmir Valley to new affirmative action policy.
In many ways, Ahmed Patel was the mind of Sonia Gandhi. Nearly everything we know about her publicly was constructed or revealed with his enabling. When the Women’s Reservation Bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha — and though everyone knew it would never become law — he reached out to journalists to facilitate a rare interview with the Congress president. He wanted it to be her moment. More than even the capture of political power and maintaining a grip over the Congress party, the central mission of his life was singular devotion to Sonia Gandhi. Her personalised obituary reference — Congressmen commented on how they could not think of a single other colleague she’d talk of in the same manner — was a reflection of this relationship.
He remained loyal to her even when an internal, generational war erupted within the party — one in which he felt overlooked and disregarded by Rahul Gandhi and his colleagues. Over the years, he would tell those he met (mostly over bhujiya and endless cups of green tea) how the power centre was shifting within the party and how his advice counted for less and less.
Some of this was overstated. Seen from the other side, there were those in Rahul and Priyanka’s camp who believed that Patel kept the party status-quoist and resistant to change.
Objectively speaking, I would disagree. If anything, Patel always believed that the art of the possible was what drove politics. He embraced every political opportunity, alliance and yes, even machination, with enthusiasm and a can-do spirit. And because he was essentially pragmatic, he was willing to readapt to a changing political environment.
Despite the fact that he was able to outmanoeuvre the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) when it came to his own Rajya Sabha election, he recognised that his brand of politics was getting overtaken in an India increasingly driven by personality. He had his contradictions. He was ferociously averse to his son Faisal having anything to do with a political life. But for himself, he lived and breathed his work 24 hours a day, using the nocturnal twilight hours to return calls the day would not permit. This trait was the one he shared with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.
And this trait is the one the present leadership of the Congress lacks the most. Politics was Ahmed Patel’s whole life. As Margaret Thatcher tells Queen Elizabeth in The Crown, “I love many things, my husband, my children among them. But my passion is only my work”.
Now that he is no longer there, the Congress party’s new managers will be tested on whether they can display the same commitment. And they will no longer have anyone to pass the buck to.