He was reputed to be the second most powerful person in the Congress, the go-to man in all emergencies, the party’s chief trouble shooter and organiser par excellence. For the last 16 years, Ahmed Patel, former Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary, was known to be all this and much more. But with Rahul Gandhi taking over as Congress chief on December 16, the curtain has come down on Patel’s long and eventful innings.

Patel has made it known to everyone that his term as the Congress president’s political secretary automatically came to an end after Sonia Gandhi decided to step aside in favour of her son. His term was co-terminus with Sonia Gandhi’s tenure in office, he has pointed out.

Patel is a Rajya Sabha member but there is no clarity on the role he is likely to play in the party organisation. He will continue as a member of the Congress Working Committee, the party’s highest decision-making body, but only till it is recast by the new president. Though it is highly unlikely that he will be removed from the working committee, there can be no denying that Patel will not have the same clout in the Rahul Gandhi-led Congress as he did when Sonia Gandhi headed the party. And yet, it will be difficult for Rahul Gandhi to forsake Patel as he is a repository of information, having been privy to major policy and organisational decisions. It is for this reason that he is also referred to as the “man who knows too much”.

As her political secretary, Patel controlled access to Sonia Gandhi, served as a bridge between her and Congress members and later between the party and the Manmohan Singh government.
As her political secretary, Patel controlled access to Sonia Gandhi, served as a bridge between her and Congress members and later between the party and the Manmohan Singh government.

Backroom boy

Understated and self-effacing, Patel proved to be the perfect choice for the post of political secretary to the Congress president. As Sonia Gandhi’s chief confidant, he wielded immense power in the party but took care to keep a low profile, was extremely discreet in his dealings and never courted publicity. It was only after Sonia Gandhi ceased to be party chief and after the declaration of the Gujarat Assembly polls that Patel gave a series of interviews to television channels.

During his tenure as Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary, Patel controlled access to the Congress president, served as a bridge between her and Congress members and later between the party and the government during the 10 years the United Progressive Alliance was in power. Though Patel will never admit to it, he also had a major say in the appointment of party functionaries as a result of which he can boast of a loyal band of followers in the party, including senior leaders such as Ashok Gehlot, Digvijaya Singh, Kamal Nath and Bhupinder Singh Hooda.

Patel may not be a mass leader but he has a firm grip on the Congress organisation as he has, over the years, developed a deep understanding of the complex functioning of the 132-year-old party. All this stood Patel in good stead during his re-election to the Rajya Sabha in August when a determined Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah went all out to defeat Patel but with no success. Thanks to his managerial skills and his undeniable clout in the party, Patel succeeded in outwitting Shah.

While Patel’s connect with Congress members is well known, he has also developed a personal relationship with leaders of other political parties. Whether it is Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati, Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party or Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Lalu Prasad, Patel has a hotline to them all. Little wonder then that Sonia Gandhi depended on Patel to deal with demanding Congress allies when the United Progressive Alliance government was in power. A quintessential “backroom boy”, Patel was constantly firefighting on Sonia Gandhi’s behalf, whether it was dealing with rebellion in the Congress ranks or with angry allies.

Can Rahul Gandhi afford to relegate Ahmed Patel to the margins? (Credit: PTI)
Can Rahul Gandhi afford to relegate Ahmed Patel to the margins? (Credit: PTI)

Past and future

Patel’s association with the Gandhi family goes back to the days of Indira Gandhi when he was party joint secretary and later deputed to work with Rajiv Gandhi, who was Congress general secretary. This stint gave him proximity to Rajiv Gandhi, who appointed Patel as parliamentary secretary after he took charge as prime minister in 1985.

The low-profile Patel entered the Congress Working Committee and was elevated as general secretary during PV Narasimha’s regime in the 1990s. He was subsequently appointed party treasurer when Sitaram Kesri was Congress president. Having played a key role in the installation of Sonia Gandhi as Congress chief in 1998, Patel retained this all-powerful post after she took over. However, a miffed Patel put in his papers following differences with Sonia Gandhi’s private secretary V George. As a result, Patel was out in the cold but it was not for long as he soon returned in a far more influential position as Sonia Gandhi’s private secretary. He held this post for 16 years, effectively sidelining possible rivals like Ambika Soni and ensuring Sonia Gandhi’s continued dependence on him.

Since it has been known for some years now that Rahul Gandhi would eventually take over as Congress chief, Patel has been preparing for this generational change. Known to be quiet and almost invisible, Patel suddenly became vocal and visible over two years ago. He took to Twitter, started addressing political rallies and also spoke up in the Rajya Sabha on a number of subjects. While he insisted that he tended to be more proactive when the Congress was in the Opposition, the overwhelming view in the party was that he was positioning himself for a new role in the Rahul Gandhi-led Congress.

It is now to be seen if Patel will become just another face in the party or if he will get a second innings and, if so, in what position. The question is, can Rahul Gandhi afford to relegate Patel to the margins?