Ahmed Patel, the secret-keeper of Congress presidents, passed away with confidences still locked away, discreet to the very end. In the course of his long career, Congress chiefs came and went, but 'Ahmedbhai' remained a fixture in the party's power elite.
His trustworthiness in all matters, including finance, made him useful, but his discretion made him indispensable. He served his political masters as a backroom strategist, troubleshooter and go-between, whatever the occasion demanded. A great survivor, he had a penchant for picking the right side in internal power struggles, which gave him the reputation of being a 'family' loyalist.
From the day he was handpicked by Indira Gandhi to contest the Lok Sabha in 1977 (he was one of the ten Congressmen who won), he was the blue-eyed boy of successive Congress presidents. Rajiv Gandhi picked him as parliamentary secretary, P V Narasimha Rao made him a general secretary of the party, Sitaram Kesri appointed him treasurer, Sonia Gandhi chose him as political secretary and Rahul Gandhi once again made him treasurer.
He shifted camps with great dexterity. After being elected to the Congress Working Committee (CWC) at its 1992 Tirupati session, he was on good terms with Prime Minister Rao, but when Sonia Gandhi criticised the PM at Amethi in 1995, he aligned with the family. Like his fellow dissidents, he correctly surmised that while Rao might survive Sonia's ire, he would have to step down as party president in the face of the multiple CBI investigations against him.
Patel was a favourite of the new president, Sitaram Kesari, to the point where he was dubbed as one of Kesari’s ‘nephews’; the other being Ghulam Nabi Azad. Kesari, who had himself served as treasurer with great distinction and chose Patel for the highly sensitive post – a testimony to his reliability. He was elected to the CWC as a member of Kesari's panel, but when the 'Sonia lao desh bachao' slogan gathered force, he was among the first to urge his boss to step down in her favour.
After Kesari's summary ouster, Patel continued to serve as treasurer, but resigned as a result of palace intrigues in 2000. In public, he was characteristically tactful about his feud with Gujarat strongman Madhavsinh Solanki. Sonia Gandhi recognised his circumspection, quiet efficiency and backroom skills and appointed him as her political secretary, a post he would hold for 16 years.
He was an active participant in the power struggles within the 10, Janpath coterie, serving to counter the influence of Gandhi's private secretary Vincent George and the irrepressible Arjun Singh. Later, he would be involved in a tussle with Ambika Soni, then head of the Congress president's office. He tried to get his loyalists appointed to key positions within the organisation and succeeded most of the time.
During the UPA regime, his decision to remain with the party, rather than join the Cabinet, made him more powerful than ever. He was the critical link between party and government or, more specifically, between 10, Janpath and 7, Race Course Road. He had free access to both power centres and gradually built up a strong base within the party organisation. Members of the 'Ahmed camp' were among the favoured few when it came to ministerial berths, party posts and tickets.
He was privy to policy decisions at the highest level, but kept a low public profile. Given that he played troubleshooter in the many tussles between UPA alliance partners and Cabinet ministers, his home on 23, Mother Teresa Crescent, was a favourite port of call for journalists. But his interactions with the media were short, sweet and preferably off-the-record.
After Rahul Gandhi became party vice-president in 2013 and inveighed against the old guard, speculation was rife that a 'son-set' was in the offing for Patel. Already on the defensive, he was perturbed when the BJP's prime ministerial nominee, Narendra Modi, called him a “good friend” in the course of an interview with Doordarshan in May 2014.
Modi gave credence to rumours that the two had enjoyed a comradeship while rising through the ranks of their respective parties, saying, “We were good friends...we called him 'Bhaubhai' and treated him that way”. Patel denied it strongly. Later, he got his own back at Modi by winning the 2017 Rajya Sabha election from the state.
The two did have history of a sort. In 1996, the Congress had backed BJP rebel Shankarsinh Vaghela, who was at daggers drawn with Modi, as chief minister. He later joined the Congress and was a member of the Ahmed camp. In 2007, Patel had contemplated a tacit collaboration with another BJP rebel, former CM Suresh Mehta, to destabilise Modi in Gujarat. Patel once observed that Modi “used to wear hawai chappals and move around on a scooter”.
Just when Patel had been written off as a power centre, he bounced back and was appointed treasurer by Rahul Gandhi in 2018. Despite his troubles, with the Income Tax and Enforcement Directorate targeting him for alleged hawala transactions and suspected links with the Sandesara brothers, he was back where he belonged – at the Congress power centre. Only to fall prey to Covid. Along with him, decades of the Congress's unwritten history have passed into oblivion.
(Disclaimer: The author is a senior journalist, with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author. The views of the author are personal. Please note that The Free Press Journal does not endorse the views of the author.)