New Delhi: On a winter afternoon in 1980-81, a friendly cricket match among parliamentarians was on in Delhi. Ahmed Patel, a young Congress MP from Gujarat, was batting with a flourish when Madhavrao Scindia walked in to join him at the other end.
Patel was on a roll, nearing the century mark, leaving Scindia at the non-striker’s end most of the time. Frustrated, the scion of the erstwhile royal family of Gwalior walked up to him and said, “You have done your part. You can let others take it from here.” The young Congress MP from Bharuch soon got himself bowled, short of a century.
Over three-and-a-half decades later, as Patel was fondly remembering the old times one day, this reporter asked, “But you could have completed your century and then walked away!” He laughed: “Arre, how could I? He was Madhavrao Scindia and I was a nobody in Delhi.”
It was this groundedness, humility and deferential approach vis-à-vis party colleagues, which made that young Bharuch MP what he became two decades later — the Congress party’s (read Sonia Gandhi’s) chief strategist and crisis manager.
As a Congress leader who was privy to deliberations in the party and the government during the 2004-2014 says, it was Patel who was the principal architect of her “larger than life image”.
“She made appointments, whether in the party or the government, on his advice,” the leader said. “Even after deliberations in the party’s core group, it was his counsel to her that finally prevailed, whether in matters of politics or governance. But he never sought to take credit or throw his weight around.”
Allegations of corruption against UPA ministers, Congress chief ministers and leaders dogged the party all those years, but thanks to Patel, nothing touched 10, Janpath, the real seat of power then.
That counsel is no more. Patel, battling Covid for a while, passed away Wednesday morning. He was 71.
The homeopath doctor
23, Mother Teresa Crescent, Patel’s Delhi residence, would be abuzz with activities until the wee hours, with Union ministers, chief ministers, and who’s who of the country queuing up for an audience.
He was jocularly called a Homeopath doctor who would give everyone pills for whatever (political) ailments they thought they suffered from. They would go back happy, thinking that the pills would work however much time they might take to show effect.
The same was true in case of inquisitive journalists, too. One of them once visited him to seek some information about the Congress high command’s views about allegations of corruption against a minister, only to return with prasad from a Tirupati temple, brought by a big industrialist. “Don’t worry about the government. People have been praying for us in Tirupati temple” was the parting shot from a smiling Patel.
The nightlong deliberations defined Patel’s working style. A senior Union minister at the Centre from Kerala once lamented to some reporters in the Central Hall of Parliament: “I don’t know what’s wrong with these Delhi people. They call up at 11 pm to discuss something and then hang up, saying ‘we will talk again at night’.”
With all his clout and networks across political and corporate domains, Patel led a simple life, spending time with his family and listening to ghazals whenever he could. And until recently, he used an old Maruti Esteem car.
Unconditional loyalty to Gandhi family
His loyalty to the Gandhi family was absolute, unconditional. As Rahul Gandhi took charge — first as vice-president in 2013 and then as president in 2017 — Patel was there to ensure a smooth transition and serve him the way he had served his father and mother. But the young scion of the Gandhi family had different ideas. He wanted to dismantle the “system” — both in the government and the party.
Patel soon realised that he, as one of the architects of that system, had to step aside. In fact, for months before his appointment as Congress treasurer in August 2018, he was spending most of his time in his hometown, visiting Delhi during Parliament sessions. He returned as Sonia Gandhi wanted him to help in stabilising the Congress ship that looked in trouble with ‘Modi Tsunami’ building up.
But the ‘system’ in the Congress had already started changing, with Rahul Gandhi working on his idea of dismantling the old one, brick by brick.
Before he breathed his last in the wee hours on Wednesday, Ahmed Patel, a quintessential Gandhi family loyalist, must have been thinking about the ship that he loved so much and the rising storms surrounding it. And, probably, also humming his favourite Mehdi Hasan nagma: “Mujhe tum nazar se gira to rahe ho/mujhe tum kabhi bhi bhula na sakoge”.