The centrality of Ahmed Patel in Indian politics
In a parliamentary democracy, power is diffuse. The legislature is where the sovereignty of citizens is expressed through representatives; the executive is where real authority is exercised, shaping the lives of citizens and leading the nation through everyday crises. The coalition or political party that enjoys the majority drives the political perspective and vision that govern decisions; the bureaucracy influences the formulation of policies and acts as an executor of policies; the judiciary monitors whether the exercise of this authority is carried out within the framework of the Constitution; Big companies have their priorities and, through political financing, they often exert an invisible influence on policies; the media play the role of watchdogs; and civil society often represents the opinions of organized citizens with specific interests that need to be heard and adapted for deeper legitimacy.
If there was a leader in Congress who had an almost instinctive understanding of how to manage these various sources and sites of power, it was Ahmed Patel. And that is why his loss is the most significant setback for the Great Old Party of India in recent times. The setback is even more profound because Congress, after losing two consecutive Lok Sabha elections and multiple state elections, being perceived as aimless, amid uncertainty about leadership and a cold war between diverse interest groups, is now Perhaps the only man who had the capacity to bridge the gap between the stakeholders within the party’s power apparatus and between the party and its potential external support components has been left without.
Ahmed Patel entered Parliament when Congress was in Opposition for the first time in the history of India, after the Emergency. Like many others who cut their teeth in those difficult times when Congress was under attack from rulers and faced internal turnover, Patel made his decision from the start. He would remain loyal to Indira Gandhi and to the family.
But it was during the time of Rajiv Gandhi that Patel began to understand the dynamics of power, forming part of the troika of parliamentary secretaries appointed by the prime minister. It was here that Patel understood the power and limitations within which the prime minister operated, even one with more than 400 seats; he saw the power of Parliament, even where the Opposition was at its weakest; he saw the importance of keeping the party organization together, in the midst of the emerging riots against the young prime minister; He saw how the handling of contradictions arising from religion and caste was central to the handling of politics (an area of familiarity from his home state of Gujarat was also often the site of communal and caste clashes). It was here that he began to form lifelong networks within the party, and his loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi family deepened.
But if he cut his teeth with Rajiv Gandhi, it was with Sonia Gandhi that Patel really came true. Once again, as at the beginning of her political career, Congress went into crisis in the late 1990s and early 2000s: Sonia Gandhi had just entered formal politics and had not yet achieved the respect of everyone within. of his own party; Atal Bihari Vajpayee was in power and was described as the most popular prime minister of recent times; Patel’s home state of Gujarat was now firmly under the control of the Bharatiya Janata Party, with an unprecedented degree of Hindu-Muslim polarization and with Patel himself being well aware of his Muslim identity. Few thought that Congress could return to power.
But he did, giving a surprise in the 2004 polls. And that’s when Patel began to tap into all the skills he’d developed in the previous two and a half decades. India had the most unusual experiment of the party chairman (Sonia Gandhi) constituting one element of the power matrix and the prime minister (Manmohan Singh) constituting another. There may be mixed opinions on whether this experiment was healthy or even appropriate for democracy, but if it lasted a decade, the man who played a central role in navigating the relationship, determining the messages that went from party to government and Ahmed Patel, the messenger at the highest levels of power.
Between 2004 and 2014, it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that no major political decision was made without the consent or knowledge of Ahmed Patel. The man who developed a legendary reputation for operating primarily at night became Sonia Gandhi’s key guardian, in terms of who she would meet, what she would prioritize and in which direction she would deviate, and the most formidable, but largely invisible power. center in India in recent decades.
If a congressional leader had a complaint, he would go to Patel. If a state headed for elections, it was Patel who determined the candidates and the tone of the campaign. If a cabinet shakeup had to take place, it was Patel who deliberated on the names with Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. If an ally had to be managed, it was Patel who handled their phones. If resources had to be mobilized, it was Patel who tapped into its corporate network, often drawing on its Gujarati roots with the country’s largest trading houses. If a high-level bureaucratic appointment was looming, officials lined up, silently, and yes, again in the middle of the night, to present their case to Patel. If the Opposition had to be countered, either through political management or using the instruments of the State (even in violation of the spirit of democratic norms), it was Patel who gave the green signal. If media strategy was decided, Patel gave the talking points to party spokesmen or briefed journalists, almost always unofficially. If a party unit in a state was in the grip of a factional divide, Patel had to read the riot law and reconcile interests. This, indeed, was the harsh mechanics of politics that Patel thrived on, away from the public’s gaze on the more orchestrated elements of political theater.
In the last six years, Patel has had to deal with two different transitions. One was the change in the national political climate, with a dominant BJP, led by your old acquaintance, and some suggest, friend, from his days in Gujarat, Narendra Modi, changing the vocabulary and rules of Indian politics. But it was not so much Modi, with whom Patel shared cordial ties, but Amit Shah, who saw Patel as one of those responsible for the cases against him in Gujarat, who decided to challenge Patel’s power, even in a game show thriller. from his Rajya Sabha seat of Gujarat in 2017. Patel won that battle, and this was a testament to how, even in his weakest moment, he had the instruments to secure his interests.
The second was the most immediate internal generational transition within his own party, with Sonia Gandhi stepping back and Rahul Gandhi emerging as the next leader. Rahul Gandhi was understood to have deep skepticism towards the party’s “old guard”, which he blamed for the weaknesses of the United Progressive Alliance government and for the broader political culture within Congress. Rahul Gandhi seemed to think that the presence of well-established political leaders around his father and mother had led them to make political mistakes. Never confirmed by either party, and often the subject of Delhi’s political vine, Patel, from this point of view, represented the Old Man.
But in recent years, even Rahul Gandhi seemed to recognize Ahmed Patel’s indispensibility. He played a key role, but behind the scenes, along with his old friend, who had also cut his teeth in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Ashok Gehlot, to help Rahul Gandhi mount an aggressive campaign. in the Gujarat elections of 2017.; played his role in managing the Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh elections in 2018, with success; As treasurer, he ensured that Congress, despite being out of power, had the resources to fight in 2019; with the return of Sonia Gandhi as head of the party, she helped rehabilitate Bhupinder Hooda in Haryana, posing a challenge to the BJP in state polls; and he was a behind-the-scenes architect of the Maharashtra alliance with another of his former colleagues, Sharad Pawar.
For a man who entered the national political theater when Congress was in Opposition 43 years ago, and has left the theater of life when Congress is now in Opposition, Ahmed Patel’s life was marked by his relationship with power, to Although he wore that power very lightly, with a smile, often underestimating his own authority and being tentative about any evolving political situation. Or perhaps it was because he had seen the power so closely that there was also this hesitation in Patel; certainties, he knew, did not work in democratic politics.
There may be strong criticism of its importance, because should a man who acted largely invisibly have exercised such power without corresponding public accountability? Were you so immersed in navigating the corridors of power in central Delhi that you failed to read the political currents on the ground and prepare your party leadership accordingly? But regardless of your views on Patel, there is no question that he remained a true, loyal, and indispensable pillar of Congress and, by extension, of Indian politics. The party will deeply feel its loss.