Congress leader Sonia Gandhi with Ahmed Patel. (PTI)
Congress leader Sonia Gandhi with Ahmed Patel. (PTI)

Congress braces for first poll test in post-Ahmed Patel era

As it gets accustomed to Patel’s absence, the party finds itself with a new chain of command and the rise of younger strategists, even as a bunch of senior leaders has being sidelined over the letter controversy last year.
UPDATED ON APR 09, 2021 06:03 AM IST

Ahmed Patel was elevated as the political secretary to then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1985 — years later he played the same role under Congress president Sonia Gandhi — and for three-and-a-half decades between then and his passing last year, was part of the Congress’s poll strategies and important decision-making processes.

A quintessential party man who was happy to steer clear of the limelight, Patel’s death on November 25 last year means that the Congress is facing the ongoing assembly elections -- polling in Puducherry, Assam, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu ended on April 6; West Bengal will see five more rounds -- without his reassuring presence at the party HQ on 24 Akbar Road .

As it gets accustomed to Patel’s absence, the party finds itself with a new chain of command and the rise of younger strategists, even as a bunch of senior leaders has being sidelined over the letter controversy last year. A group of 23 senior leaders, commonly identified as “G23”, wrote to Congress president Sonia Gandhi in August demanding sweeping changes in the way the party functions.

The vacuum, analysts and some Congress insiders say, has also led to the decentralisation of the party’s poll tactics to a large extent.

Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel (59) and former Union minister Jitendra Singh (49) are handling the Assam elections this year. Party functionaries claim this team handled the entire poll strategy, including alliances, without any significant intervention from the high command, as the Congress top leadership, primarily comprising the Nehru-Gandhi family, is known in party circles.

The Congress sent Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot to Kerala and, in a first, party general secretaries KC Venugopal and Randeep Surjewala as its initial emissaries for seat negotiations in Tamil Nadu.

Mukul Wasnik, Prithviraj Chavan and BK Hariprasad have been named poll observes, but things are very different says a senior Congress leader. “If Ahmed Patel was alive, there would invariably be a strategy centre at the 15, Gurdwara Rakabganj Road office with one of the three offices [there] dedicated to him,” added this person who asked not to be named. This is the party’s so-called election war room. In previous elections, Patel was a constant presence in the Congress war room where he met strategists, took stock of the situation, identified challenges, handled the vital issue of funds, and duly reported back to Sonia Gandhi.

But now, as a second party leader said, “The lion’s share of the election planning is taking place at the state level. New, younger people have taken responsibility.”

To be sure, this doesn’t mean that the new strategists are on autopilot mode. The poll-bound party is firmly in the hands of Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. Last month, when the seat-sharing talks between the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Congress came to a standstill in Tamil Nadu, it was Sonia Gandhi who called DMK chief MK Stalin to finalise the pact. According to one of her confidants, she still decides several issues, such as party’s Rajya Sabha nominees or the negotiations with allies.

But Sonia Gandhi, according to the two senior leaders quoted above, is yet to come to terms with Patel’s untimely death, and the party has not found his substitute -- someone who can be her eyes and ears and can handle crises, as he did for decades.

Examples abound of Patel’s legendary political skills

From garnering votes for the 2008 trust vote triggered by the India-US nuclear deal to managing the United Progressive Alliance partners (he was the strongest link between Sonia Gandhi and West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee), Ahmed Patel did it all. He would meet Pranab Mukherjee, then the number two in the Cabinet, almost every week after midnight (Mukherjee’s favourite time for leisurely conversations) to discuss issues, or even reach out to outside supporters such as Left or Mulayam Singh Yadav on behalf of Sonia Gandhi.

In September 2013, when Rahul Gandhi dubbed an ordinance cleared by union cabinet as “complete nonsense” while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in the US, Sonia called Patel and asked him to draft the party’s public response.

When the Congress decided to organise its first rally near Jantar Mantar against the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s amendments to the land bill in 2015, a host of leaders called up the young organisers to ensure their slots as speakers. But it was Patel who thought of the basics. “When we went to invite Patel, he asked us if have had sufficient funds to organise the rally,” said an AICC member.

Along with Kamal Nath and Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Patel was instrumental in managing funds for the party. He was an austere man without a flashy lifestyle.

In Patel’s absence, his responsibilities have been distributed among several leaders, suggesting further decentralisation. Venugopal, a close aide of Rahul Gandhi, is overseeing all organisational issues. Former railway minister Pawan Bansal has replaced Patel as the treasurer of the Congress. And other leaders such as Jairam Ramesh and Randeep Surjewala play important roles in party management.

But the party is struggling to fill the void left by Patel’s death. According to a senior strategist and Patel’s colleague in the Rajya Sabha, his death is perhaps the biggest blow for the Congress in the recent times after the loss of two national elections.

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