One of the staunchest pillars of the Indian National Congress, trustworthy, humble and in the words of Sonia Gandhi, an irreplaceable comrade  , Ahmedbhai Mohammedbhai Patel, popularly known as ‘Ahmed Bhai’ or AP in political circles, served as the powerful political secretary to Congress president Sonia Gandhi and represented Gujarat for eight terms in the parliament of India. During the 10 year rule of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), ‘AP’ was often referred to as the quintessential backroom strategist and crises manager who firmly remained in the background.
With almost an instinctive understanding of how to master the various sources and sites of power, AP’s sudden demise after a prolonged battle with complications arising out of the Covid’19 infection has been a great setback to India’s grand old party. The setback is even deeper as it comes at a time when the Congress, after losing two consecutive Lok Sabha elections and multiple state elections, is closely perceived as directionless in the midst of uncertainty over leadership. The party is left bereft of perhaps the one man who had the ability to bridge stakeholders within the power and between the party and its possible constituents of support outside. Let us delve deeper to know more why AP was regarded as the centre of Indian politics and how he left a mark on those around him.
A man of virtue and actions that inspired masses!
Patel’s classmates, at the Gujarati medium section of Mission school in Piraman village, remember him as a shy student who grew to become a man for his village and was regarded as their man in Delhi. He would chat with villagers and solved their problems late into the night during his visits to Piraman. AP worked to ensure that his village had concrete roads, helipad on the outskirts, water distillation plants, open public spaces with gardens, concrete houses and CCTV cameras all around the village. He started a medical OPD center run by a trust named HMP Foundation- named after his mother, for medical emergencies. He brought about such development and opportunities to his village that many of the residents have now settled in UK, Canada, USA and South Africa.
Chances are that even the politically aware wouldn’t be able to identify Ahmed Patel in a group photograph. That was the kind of man Ahmed Patel was. He shunned limelight, hated giving interviews and speeches and loved anonymity. A career politician from Gujarat, Patel first caught media’s eye when Rajiv Gandhi appointed him as one of the three Parliamentary Secretaries in 1985. Thereafter he faced the usual ups and downs until Sonia Gandhi took over the Congress party and needed people whom she could rely upon and has the core values of liberalism and secularism that the party associated itself with.
The center of Indian politics
Ahmed Bhai entered Parliament when for the first time in the history of Indian politics; Congress was in opposition-after the Emergency. Whilst Congress was being attacked by those in the government and facing a churn within itself, Patel made his choice early on to stay loyal to Indira Gandhi and the family. It was during Rajiv Gandhi’s time that Patel understood power and the constraints within which the prime minister operated. He appreciated the power of Parliament even when the opposition was at its weakest. He understood the importance of keeping the part together and witnessed how handling the contradictions emerging from religion and caste were central to managing politics. It was during this time, he began forming lifelong networks and his loyalty to the Gandhi family deepened.
When Congress under Sonia Gandhi surprisingly came back to power in 2004, Patel began harnessing all the skills that he developed in past years. Ahmed Patel played the messenger at highest levels of power and became central in navigating the relationships and determining the messages that went from the party to the government. One can say with confidence that no political or policy decision happened without Patel’s consent or knowledge. He developed a legendary reputation of operating at night and soon became Sonia Gandhi’s gatekeeper in terms of whom they should meet and what they should prioritize. Addressing grievances, determining candidates and tone of campaign for elections, cabinet reshuffles, managing allies, mobilizing resources or any other need, it was AP making recommendations, tapping his corporate network and working his phones. He even gave talking points to the party spokesperson and briefed journalists off the record.
Over the years, Ahmed Patel came to be known as a problem solver and soon many people looked up to him in times of difficulty. Perhaps the most recent instance where Patel managed the crises was curbing the rebellion of the G-23 earlier this year when several of his Rajya Sabha colleagues wrote a scathing letter demanding internal elections and introspection in the party. This letter was a clear attack on the Gandhi family and Rahul Gandhi for his refusal to take charge of the party. AP’s USP has always been his unflinching loyalty to the family. He reached out to individuals while alienating the dissenters. He personally talked to his colleagues and convinced the party’s chief ministers Ashok Gehlot and Bhupesh Baghel to give public statements in support of the Gandhi family.
Within a day or two, some letter writers gave public statements saying all their concerns had been addressed. Along with his colleagues he carefully orchestrated a meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) two days after the dissent letter became public. This was regarded as a well choreographed move and leaders after leaders poured in their praises for Sonia Gandhi and requested her to stay president of congress till a new person was elected.
Another remarkable contribution made by Patel with his wit and people skills was in 2008 during the Indo-US nuclear deal which Dr Manmohan Singh who was determined to go ahead with it even if his government was threatened. The threat posed by his left allies left UPA short of numbers and that’s when AP’s relationship with other parties came in handy. Patel reached out to the then leader of Samajwadi Party- Amar Singh who’s part has 39 MPs whose votes would make up for the vacuum created by the left. The two of them, together roped in several key leaders like former president APJ Abdul Kalam who convinced Mulayam Singh Yadav and others to vote with the Manmohan Singh government. Resultantly, UPA was able to secure a comfortable 275 votes. Patel closely worked with Pranab Mukherjee to deliver the trust win.
AP’s political and personal life was marked by his relationship with power, which he wore very lightly with a smile and often understating his own authority. One might critique that should a man who largely operated invisibly have exercised such power without commensurate public accountability? Irrespective of one’s view on Patel, there is little doubt that he remained a true, loyal, indispensable pillar of the Congress—and, by extension, of Indian politics.