For several years, Ahmed Patel, or AP as many would call him, invited me to visit his village in Gujarat, always tempting me with the promise of a good vacation. Little did I know my visit to his village would be after his departure from this world.
As I sat, sad and pensive, in the aircraft, accompanying his mortal remains to his village Piraman in Ankleshwar, I reflected upon his life and his works. As is the norm in this age of social media, I kept thinking about the keywords that would sum up his persona. Keywords that would define the man who was the invisible craftsman of Indian politics for well over two decades.
The words that immediately came to my mind were humility, loyalty, caring, brilliant, meticulous, unassuming and samarpan. ‘Samarpan’ because no word in English can catch the exact essence of this quintessentially Indian thought, which goes beyond the dictionary synonyms of dedication, devotement, surrender, commit, pledge, obligate. It’s a philosophical thought of merging one’s identity with the force or idea that one loves, venerates, reveres and wishes to protect by offering one’s own very identity.
Anyone who knew Ahmed Patel or even met him just once would vouch for the fact that he was humble. Even in the heydays of the UPA, when he was one of three most powerful persons in India, he met everyone with humility. It would be extremely difficult for anyone to recall any instance of his arrogance. He was indeed powerful. Top politicians, corporate leaders, most media persons and celebrities sought his audience, went to his residence to share their secret aspirations, to share their complaints, to seek his help or even, to simply gossip with him. But he would meet the powerful and the common worker with same effusive simplicity. Without any airs. He would give them comfort, listen to them, counsel them, made them feel he wasn’t alien to them. His humility was not a put-up act. It carried an aura that didn’t intimidate others. Instead, it engulfed them in a warmth in which they could feel comfortable and reassured.
More to politics than agenda
Ahmed Patel understood that politics isn’t just about political agenda, it is also about political culture and bonhomie. He understood that political strategies are not woven out of singular grand objectives, but they germinate out of camaraderie developed during trivial chats and mutual sharing of joys, dreams, aspirations and also anguish, grief and sorrows. His caring approach enabled him to become a sounding board for the ‘cogs and spokes’ of the giant Indian political wheel. He ensured that any secret shared with him, any information passed on to him, would remain confidential. This enabled him to cultivate a huge network of information flow that helped him maintain control.
Over the decades, Ahmed Patel earned the reputation of being a brilliant political strategist. Political sitcoms like House of Cards or innumerable Bollywood films give an impression that strategic acumen is all about creating convoluted moves or criminal choices. But Ahmed Patel proved that strategic acumen can also emerge out of honest admission of one’s own weaknesses, not just strengths. In fact, the triumvirate of Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and Ahmed Patel was successful in running a coalition government for two full terms because each realised and sincerely admitted their respective weaknesses and teamed up to complement each other. Of course, the pivot of this team was always Sonia Gandhi herself. Ahmed Patel realised very early in his career that in a post-Babri masjid demolition reality, it was extremely difficult for a Muslim politician to emerge as a mass leader with general acceptability. So, he receded to the backstage, honing his skills to master organisational nitty-gritty and develop relations across the political spectrum.
Armed with the authority of being Sonia Gandhi’s interface with the political fraternity, Ahmed Patel carved a unique space for himself amidst political parties and Congress leaders and workers. He would rarely spread out a chessboard to make intricate political moves. Instead, he cultivated himself into an unfiltered channel for information flow to and from Sonia Gandhi. He passed on every information to the Congress president, without any censorship. He transmitted the information, dutifully quoting the source and without any personal credit. There were instances when he passed on information against himself also, uncensored.
His candid talk and honest admission of constraints or objectives behind any agenda cultivated respect for him amidst the political leaders of other parties. They knew that Ahmed Patel will not misguide them into a hidden agenda. They found him reliable and affable. His persuasive skills with political parties and players were not based on intricate arguments, rather they were built upon a reputation of being a trustworthy and dependable interlocutor. I am personally aware of the fact that there is hardly any political leader across political parties who would not receive or return a phone call from Ahmed Patel. He was a comrade to them, with whom they could banter, argue, express and even agree to disagree, without any malice or fear of being quoted or used out of context ever.
Ahmed Patel and Sonia Gandhi
Ahmed Patel’s relationship with Sonia Gandhi became folklore in his lifetime itself. The words ‘Samarpan’ and ‘loyalty’ immediately come to mind. But more than that it was it his meticulous approach and political acumen that kept the association going from strength to strength. Few people know that he had excellent command over English and Hindi. He had an extraordinary eye for detail and planning. Every speech written for Sonia Gandhi was personally vetted by him for facts and twist and turns of the phrase. He would weigh each substantive word to rule out any chance of being misused or used out our context. He would often contribute conceptual themes and anecdotes to enrich her speeches. It is no surprise that in a long and active career of over two decades, people can recall just one instance of miscommunication, namely the ‘maut ka saudagar’ speech. Other than it, each word spoken or published under intense public scrutiny withstood the test of authenticity and impact. He didn’t view himself just as Sonia Gandhi’s advisor, but believed that he was a trustee of her beliefs and her politics and defended her interests like an impregnable wall.
Some have called him a manipulator in politics. Often it depends on a person’s perspective because political manipulation and political-strategic craftsmanship can mean the same to many. But to evaluate Ahmed Patel’s contribution to Indian politics, he needs to be viewed beyond the demands and turmoil of daily politics. As once said by former president Pranab Mukherjee, he was the invisible craftsman of India’s growth story under the UPA. Any decision for rights-based legislation, any unconventional policy framework introduced by the government landed at Patel’s table. The decision may be taken by Sonia Gandhi or Manmohan Singh, it was left to Ahmed Patel to carve consensus in its favour and see it through. Without his persuasive powers and dogged efforts, it would have been extremely difficult to pull through Bills like RTI, NREGA, domestic violence, forest rights, food security, land acquisition, parliamentary approval of the nuclear deal and the formation Telangana. It was Ahmed Patel who kept the UPA constituents together not just on issues, but also on a day to day basis.
Ahmed Patel would often politely downplay his role in contemporary politics and in the Congress party. A few weeks ago, late after midnight, he was in a reflective mood and told me, ‘after all it all boils down to few lines of condolence resolution in CWC’, thereafter all will forget and move ahead in life. Then he started singing the Mukesh song, ‘kal koi mujhko yaad kare, kyun koi mujhko yaad kare’. He may have shared a universal truth, but the fact also remains that some people are in fact remembered long after they are gone. As I pointed out to him at the time, he himself was singing the lines penned by Sahir long after he is gone. Some people and their contributions outlive their lives. They are missed for a long time to come.
Gurdeep Sappal is former CEO of Rajya Sabha TV.