It’s the end of an era in the Congress

Managing so many egos, agendas, pride and prejudices must have been the most difficult task that Ahmed Patel performed for his party, writes National Herald Editor-in-Chief Zafar Agha

It’s the end of an era in the Congress

Zafar Agha

One recalls today yet another severe Delhi winter 22 years ago.

It was the year 1998 and Lok Sabha elections had been announced. NDA under Atal Bihari Vajpayee appeared set to win and Congress leaders began to jump from what appeared to be a sinking ship with Sitaram Kesri at the helm. Former Union Ministers like Rangarajan Kumaramangalam, Aslam Sher Khan and others joined the BJP. For the Congress it looked like a very long winter indeed.

But the news that Sonia Gandhi, widow of the assassinated Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and who had kept away from the public eye since 1991, would be campaigning for the Congress, electrified the party. The deserted party headquarters on 24, Akbar Road soon began to buzz with activity and ticket seekers from across the country crowded the office. It was hailed as a ‘masterstroke’.

Not many were aware of the role of Ahmed Bhai in persuading not just Sonia Gandhi to campaign but also other Congress leaders like Ashok Gehlot, Digvijay Singh and Bhupinder Singh Hooda to rally round her. For over two decades beginning 1998 Ahmedbhai Mohammedbhai Patel (1949-2020) remained a veritable one-man army managing the party organization from behind the scenes.

Just before the counting day after the 2004 general election, which everybody expected the NDA under Vajpayee to win, Congress leaders were milling around at 23, Mother Teresa Marg in New Delhi, where Ahmed Patel lived. Jairam Ramesh, Salman Khurshid and Anand Sharma were there. Ahmed Patel looked calm as usual and placidly informed me that industrialist Mukesh Ambani was sitting with Mrs Sonia Gandhi at that very moment.

The media rushed to her residence on Janpath, to be informed that Mukesh Ambani had indeed called on Mrs Gandhi. It conveyed the political message that the Ambanis expected the UPA to win. The UPA did win the election, defying exit polls and political pundits. But it was far from an easy victory.

With Sonia Gandhi’s support, Ahmed Patel had done the hard work and prepared the ground for the unexpected victory. He was a strong believer in alliances and would often tell us from the media that the Congress had no option but to align with other secular parties to defeat the NDA. He clearly understood the dangers that the BJP posed to the country. But before convincing non-BJP parties, Congress leaders had to be converted first.

I remember Pranab Mukherjee puffing on his pipe and telling us “Congress can never go for alliance politics”. Several other stalwarts of the party outrightly rejected the idea. It was far from easy for Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Ahmed Patel to pull it off. Ahmedbhai met senior leaders individually and nudged them to accept the inevitability of the idea. NDA was an alliance of anti-Congress parties and it could only be defeated by an alliance of anti-BJP parties, he argued. Following a brainstorming session at Shimla in 2003, Congress announced it would work to form a secular alliance to take on the BJP.

Back from Shimla, Ahmed Patel plunged himself to convince non-BJP party leaders to fight elections as part of a common alliance. Forging an alliance of 14 parties, big and small, was a herculean task. Regional leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan and Ajit Singh in the north, Sharad Pawar in the West and Karunanidhi in the South had to be brought on board. Left parties, especially the CPI(M), which was then entrenched in West Bengal and Keralaand fought elections against the Congress, needed to be convinced.

Managing so many egos, agendas, pride and prejudices must have been the most difficult task that Ahmed Patel performed for his party. “It is not a joke bringing them together’’, an exasperated Ahmed Patel once confided after a session with Mulayam Singh. On one occasion he persuaded Sonia Gandhi to walk up to her next door neighbour,Ram Vilas Paswan, to win him over to the UPA.

He roped in civil society activists to overcome the party’s organisational weaknesses. It worked and soon his house was crowded with activists like Aruna Roy, Teesta Seetalvad, Javed Akhter, Mahesh Bhatt and student leaders from JNU. He arranged one-on-one meetings of many of them with the Congress President. They came on board to work on a people’s agenda and to defeat communalism in the aftermath of the 2002 communal carnage in Gujarat.

Sonia Gandhi points out in her tribute to ‘Ahmed’, as she always addressed her political secretary, that he was ‘much more than a trouble shooter or crisis manager for the Congress’. Ahmed Patel lived for the Congress for over four decades once he got elected to the Lok Sabha in 1977 from his home-town Baruch in Gujarat. He remained loyal to the Gandhi family, standing firmly with Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi. Many Congress leaders quipped this week that Ahmed Patel ‘’never worked for himself but worked round the clock for the party.”

Even as he was struggling for his life in a hospital, I wished him speedy recovery in a WhatsApp message. It was late at night but he was prompt in thanking me for my prayers to which he wrote “Amen”.

Sadly, no prayers worked for him.

As Congress grieves and wonders if and when there will be another Ahmed Patel in its ranks, those who were fortunate to know him, bid farewell. He was a leader and a gentleman.

Allah Hafiz Ahmed Bhai. RIP

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