By Rajiv Shah/
Ahmed Patel has passed away. It is indeed sad that he became another Covid victim, like thousands of others across the world. His loss appears to have been particularly felt in the Congress corridors. I know how some party leaders from Gujarat would often defend him even if one “negative” remark was made on him. “I personally cannot tolerate any criticism of Ahmedbhai”, Shaktisinh Gohil, Rajya Sabha MP from Gujarat, appointed Bihar in charge ahead of recent assembly polls, told me about a couple of years ago during a tete-e-tete in Ahmedabad.
I have known Ahmedbhai, though not intimately. The first time I met him was in Gandhinagar. It was 1997, when the BJP hadn’t yet taken over. The elections were to take place in December. Just posted as the Times of India reporter to cover government, I was called for a dinner at a very ordinary government-owned flat in Sector 16 where former Congress minister Urvashi Devi who later switched over to BJP, but now is not with any party, used to live. It wasn’t very far from the helipad.
I first heard of Ahmed Patel in Delhi during the Emergency days, when I had just finished his post-graduation in English literature from the Delhi University, and was desperately looking for what I should do next, and finally landed up as a trainee proof reader (imagine!) in the “National Herald”. I vaguely remember, he was mentioned in newspapers as part of those who were close to Sanjay Gandhi, a terror during the Emergency.
Apart from this, all that I knew of Ahmedbhai was, he had stopped fighting elections after he was defeated from his Bharuch Parliamentary seat, from where he won continuously between 1977 and 1989. During my 1997 meeting I pointedly asked him why didn’t he fight any elections thereafter. Defeated by a BJP non-entity, I distinctly remember the explanation he gave me: “It’s impossible to win elections in Gujarat if you are a Muslim.”
Polite, suave and soft-spoken, I recall Ahmedbhai requested: “Please don’t quote me”, and I obliged. While as a reporter who covered Gandhinagar, I kept in touch with Ahmedbhai, often phoning him up, and did meet him a few times during Congress gatherings in Gandhinagar, I found, he always wanted not to be in the limelight. Every time I would talk to him, he would insist, “Don’t quote me.” I had learned a few alleged tricks of keeping sources alive.
I remember how, after I joined the Times of India in 1993 as assistant editor and hadn’t yet been sent to Gandhinagar in 1997, a very close friend of mine took me for a dinner with Bharatsinh Solanki, son of Congress stalwart Madhavsinh Solanki. Bharatsinh, then a Congress MLA, talking to me “off the record”, sharply criticised Ahmed Patel, blaming the latter for trying to “destroy” the Congress. I didn’t pay much need to what Bharatsinh was saying.
When in Gandhinagar, soon after BJP took over reins of power in 1998, I found, there was an internal tussle between what were regarded as Madhavsinh Solanki group and Ahmed Patel group. A former foreign minister and Gujarat chief minister in 1980s, Madhavsinh (now in his 90s) – whom I would often meet – addressed several meetings called to criticise Ahmed Patel. I attended these meetings in Gandhinagar, including one in the Town Hall.
After Narendra Modi took over as chief minister in October 2001, I didn’t hear much of Ahmed Patel in Gandhinagar, except for a story by my editor, Kingshuk Nag – I don’t remember the timing of the story, but it either appeared ahead of the December 2002 assembly elections or the 2004 Lok Sabha polla. The explosive story, carried as the front page flier, said Ahmed Patel had a “secret” meeting with Modi at a hotel near the Ahmedabad airport.
I had no reason to contest the veracity of the story. After all it carried the byline of my editor, whom I have known as an extremely well-informed journalist. However, what I clearly remember is, it did give air to the rumours (I still don’t know if these were totally baseless) that Ahmedbhai was, in some ways, “hand-in-glove” with Modi. These rumours were particularly widespread among Gujarati journalists, who generally know much better of things political.
Be that as it may, Ahmed Patel had tremendous clout – so much so that he could strongly influence media houses. Ahead of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, I was approached by my office to do a profile of Ahmed Patel. I was happy, as here was an opportunity to write pros and cons of a political leader, who was the key political adviser of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi. Even as I was talking with different people, I told not to write. The reason I later learned was, the Delhi TOI office didn’t want a story that would embarrass Ahmed Patel. “He has helped TOI several times”, I was told.
I had written a story in 2007, based on a Gujarati book, “Karmayog”, carrying Modi’s speeches, where he had said, manual scavengers, while doing their cleanliness work, had spiritual experience. About 5,000 copies of the book were withdrawn. A decade later, I was enjoying dinner with some of my neighours in Ahmedabad, and suddenly I got a phone call from Ahmed Patel. Soft spoken as ever, he asked for the book, recalling my story. I told him I didn’t have it, wondering to myself why it took Congress to wake up 10 years late. Was Congress was like that?
Be that as it may, during my interaction with bureaucrats in Gandhinagar, I would often learn how IAS officials would approach Ahmed Patel in order to be empanelled in Delhi for important postings during the ten year long UPA rule, which ended in 2014. “Talk to Ahmed Patel, he would be of help”, is what babus would whisper, I was told. Indeed, most of the senior bureaucrats knew him personally. Even today, they recall how they were “helped”.
Meanwhile, I have always wondered why, if Ahmed Patel was such a big political strategist, was he not able to put the Congress house in order in Gujarat. Whenever I would pose this question — with the “addendum” that shouldn’t he take over the charge of president of the Gujarat Congress, if he thinks he cannot win an election as a Muslim? — the only answer I would get from the state leaders was: “He is a national leader, not a Gujarat leader”