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Politics

Having Covered Modi's Gujarat, I Can Say SIT's Claim of Ahmed Patel 'Conspiracy' is Ludicrous

Kingshuk Nag of 'Times of India', who served as its resident editor in Ahmedabad during the 2002 riots, sheds light on how the Congress leader was indeed perceived as someone who defended Narendra Modi back then.

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Ahmed Patel must be turning in his grave. Nearly two years after he died in November 2020, he is back in the news once again.

To oppose the bail application of activist Teesta Setalvad, the police have now claimed – based on the report of a special investigation team (SIT) – that she was part of a “larger conspiracy” carried out at the behest of Ahmed Patel to dismiss the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the state after the 2002 riots. The report has now been filed as an affidavit filed before the sessions court in Ahmedabad.

As the resident editor of the Times of India in Ahmedabad in those days, the charge appears ludicrous to me.

Ahmed Patel was always perceived to be on the side of Narendra Modi. He was the one Congress leader who was seen as protecting Modi and defending him from behind. Certainly, this was the view of a large section of civil society activists. As the political advisor to Congress president Sonia Gandhi his advice was probably taken very seriously by the head of the party, I thought.

The Congress-led UPA government came to power in New Delhi in 2004, some two years after the Gujarat riots of 2002. The party leadership was happy to go along with the Supreme Court’s pro-active concerns in 2007-8 that justice be done in the various riot-related cases that the state police was clearly dragging its feet over. This was the period when many cases were reopened on the apex court’s orders, much to the Modi government’s discomfort. The key players, however, were the National Human Rights Commission – which had played a major role in this process right from 2002 – and activists like Setalvad, not the Congress.

If anything, the Congress party – and Ahmed Patel in particular – internalised the belief that aggressively targeting Modi for his role in the 2002 riots and in various fake encounters (like that of Sohrabuddin) was politically counterproductive. Sonia Gandhi had attacked Modi as a ‘maut ka saudagar‘ – a merchant of death – in the 2007 Gujarat elections but the then chief minister was able to turn the taunt to his advantage. That was when the party decided to focus more on attacking Modi’s claims to being a good administrator and dropped all ‘Muslim’ related issues. This is perhaps the reason the Congress under Sonia Gandhi chose not to reopen the Haren Pandya assassination case when the Gujarat high court, in a sensational verdict, overturned the official narrative that Pandya– a Modi critic – had been killed by Muslim conspirators linked to Pakistan.

Once I asked Ahmed Patel why he was seen as a leader in favour of the Modi-led government in Gujarat. He was stumped for an answer for a few seconds, but then confided that the situation in Gujarat “had changed”. He volunteered that it was not possible to rein in Modi as Gujarat chief minister “without consequences”. He also said that the situation in Gujarat was no longer favourable to field any Muslim candidate to win an elected seat.

Patel – who is said to have been very close to Sonia Gandhi and acted as her ears and eyes – began his political career as a Lok Sabha MP from Bharuch in Gujarat in 1977. But in 1993, he shifted to the Rajya Sabha, and thereafter till his death remained in the upper house. He served five terms in the Rajya Sabha and three terms in the Lok Sabha.

But in 2017, several Congress MLAs in Gujarat were shifted from Gandhinagar to Ahmedabad. This was because it was perceived that these Congress MLAs were being goaded to vote against Patel – who was contesting another term in Rajya Sabha.

Ahmed Patel was a strong Congress leader with a lot of influence, but never became a minister in the government. He, however, held important organisational positions and drew his powers from his proximity to the topmost Congress leaders.

Apart from Ahmed Patel the only Muslim MP to ever be elected from Gujarat was Ehsan Jafri who represented Ahmedabad in the Lok Sabha from 1972-77. Ironically, it was Jafri’s brutal killing in the course of the 2002 riots that eventually led to the police case against activist Teesta Setalvad because the former MP’s widow, Zakia Jafri, filed a petition seeking registration of a case against Modi and other senior officials and leaders in the state for conspiracy to instigate riots. Her case, in which Setalvad was co-petitioner, was dismissed by the top court in May. The court, controversially, also called for the action to be taken against the petitioners ‘and others’ for what it called  ‘abuse of process’.

Kingshuk Nag is the former resident editor of  The Times of India. He is the author of several books, including The NaMo Story: A Political Life.