As a novice reporter in ‘The Statesman’, I wrote a political news report on Congress. It was 1992. I did not know even a single politician at that time. With the help of the telephone directory, I had rotated the phone to several Congress leaders, but the only leader who made the callback was Ahmed Patel.
I finished my story quoting them. A senior of mine in that newspaper’s political bureau was horrified. He had said- ‘Ahmad bhai has crossed the limits and you did not quote him’, it was a stone streak for me which my senior had drawn.
Later that same day, I called him again (to Ahmed Patel) and was trying to explain the situation to him with a suppressed tongue, when he laughed and asked how long have you been reporting? Then I had a total of six months, out of which I had a tenure as a trainee. He immediately said softly, “This is my fault. I should have told you that this is an off the record.”
From cabinet ministers to journalists and opposition leaders and from his parliamentary and native constituency Bharuch, where he started his political innings with a mayor, Ahmed Patel used to say, ‘Aap phir aana’.
Ahmed Patel was Sonia Gandhi’s most trusted troubleshooter, her political secretary and the only Congress leader whom she trusted. He was available 24×7 (round the clock, seven days) for the Gandhi family. He could be called at any time. The first and second UPA governments were entirely his creations, though he never joined Manmohan Singh’s cabinet. Even the unpredictable Mahavikas Aghadi government of Maharashtra led by Uddhav Thackeray was formed by Patel and Sharad Pawar.
It was Ahmed Patel who intervened in the case of Youth Congress leader and Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan and got his rebellion back from him. Sachin Pilot told me that Patel often asked about his mother Rama Pilot and often talked about friendship with his late father Rajesh Pilot, who was a staunch Congressman.
Patel was one of the list of old leaders of the Congress – who had a big heart and broad shoulders, who had the ability to get involved on minor issues even when needed, even if they had a knot – like complex political formulas and weapons. Why not adopt it? Patel was also a “politician of politicians” who had a vast network of contacts and personal relationships in corporate and media, moving away from the party line. Being behind the scenes, he was not only knowledgeable of successful strategy making and systemic work but his consummate.
Patel was an expert player in the art, through which he would directly read the facial expressions of his boss (Sonia Gandhi) and make political claims accordingly. He worked tirelessly throughout the night and went to bed at seven in the morning. During the Rajya Sabha elections, Ahmed Patel would often call and wake up the Congress leaders in the morning and said that he has to make a nomination for the Rajya Sabha, so reach the party office with all the papers. He used to do all these things in the morning.
Patel was truly fearless and used to proudly say that he has worked with all generations of the Gandhi family. He started with Indira Gandhi, who tested him in Gujarat and contested the Lok Sabha elections from Bharuch for the first time in 1977. Patel was a three-time MP from there. Patel remained close to Rajiv Gandhi after Indira. He was Parliamentary Secretary to Rajiv Gandhi but was also very close to Sonia Gandhi. He was extremely loyal to her and was always the last person to speak on political issues. While forming the UPA government, Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and Ahmed Patel had decided on the possible faces of each ministry and it was Patel who called the elected people.
Once during the tenure of UPA Sarkar-II, Ahmed Patel was deeply pained on a political issue and after that he wanted to resign from the post of political secretary to Sonia Gandhi. At that time, Sonia Gandhi had kept Ahmed Patel together for about five hours and explained that no other leader in the party would be given any privileges.
Patel often used to welcome guests visiting his home with Gujarati snacks. On many occasions, I saw many people being treated like this at their home. He himself used to serve snacks among the people. There was always a queue of visitors there. I asked him once about how do you handle so many visitors together? And that too when your daughter-in-law is struggling with an incurable disease. Then he said, “These Congress people come from so far, spend so much money to get here. They wait in line. They all want someone to listen to them and put their hands on their shoulders. And This will happen only if they are ready for the Congress fight again. ”
Similarly, Patel maintained the Gandhi family’s hold over the Congress party. Patel had personally regretted Rahul Gandhi only once. Rahul Gandhi did not really like him, despite this, in the year 2018, Rahul Gandhi had to appoint Patel as treasurer before the 2019 elections because Patel was the only one who could manage the funds for the party.
The last time I met him was 10 months ago. Then he had said, “It is time to retire. I want to go back to Bharuch.” Then I had a laugh and said, “Ahmad bhai no one will let you go back, not even your boss.” Then he smiled.
Patel was troubled by the BJP and its “politics of vengeance”, which he himself had witnessed at the time of the Rajya Sabha elections in Gujarat in 2017, yet he overtook Amit Shah’s strategy. For Patel, the opposition may be an adversary but no enemy. According to him, everyone is a potential ally, provided he convinces it.
This was part of my last conversation with him, in which he said, “I only miss. Not you, Swati.” Ahmed Patel used to give a scolding secretly. Then, he said in his characterful and familiar style, “This Covid-19 is over, see you again. Take care.” But he could never recover from Covid-19.