In his book The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh, Sanjaya Baru, who was former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s media adviser, unveils several facts about Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary, 65-year-old Ahmed Patel, and his role in the party as well as the UPA government. Baru reveals that all political messages between Sonia and Manmohan Singh used to be routed through Patel. An increase in the frequency of his visits to the PM signalled an impending Cabinet reshuffle, writes Baru. Patel had the power to influence decision-making until the very end of the UPA regime. “On one occasion, he arrived at 7, Race Course Road just minutes before the PM’s letter to the President listing the names of MPs to be sworn in as ministers in a reshuffle was dispatched. Since the letter had been typed and signed and was ready to be delivered, and the President was waiting to receive it, it was decided that instead of wasting time retyping the letter, the new name being proposed by Patel would be typed over an existing name, which would be painted over with whitener,” writes Baru.
This incident shows the preeminent position Patel enjoys in the party and his closeness to Sonia. Patel had been a close aide of Sonia even before she stepped into politics. Often referred to as Sonia’s “crisis manager”, he is considered the most influential person in the party after the Gandhi family. “All roads to Sonia Gandhi pass through Ahmed Patel,” it is said.
Patel was associated with the Congress long before Sonia joined the party. He has been a loyalist of the Nehru-Gandhi family since the time of Indira Gandhi. Patel came into contact with Sonia for the first time when he was made secretary of the Jawahar Bhawan Trust. Sonia was yet to enter politics but was quite involved with the trust at the time. Not only did Patel shoulder his responsibilities with exceptional dedication, he even arranged for funds. He also played a key role in establishing the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, a project close to Sonia’s heart. This is where their bond developed. Former Gujarat chief minister Shankersinh Vaghela recalls, “After Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, Ahmed Patel took care of the entire family, whether it was the education of Rahul and Priyanka or any financial matter. He served the family like a loyal servant.”
When Sonia finally decided to take the plunge into politics, she was ably chaperoned by Patel. “Patel played an important role in preparing Sonia to take charge of party affairs and in dethroning Sitaram Kesri to install her as party president,” says Vaghela. With Sonia as Congress president, Patel grew in stature and influence.
Sonia’s blind trust in Patel is attributed to the fact that he never abused his power, nor sought to use his proximity to the Gandhi clan to further any personal ambition. “Everybody was aware that Ahmed Patel had more influence than the prime minister, but he never misused that power to seek personal benefits,” says Gujarat-based political analyst Devendra Patel.
On the close ties between Sonia and Patel, a Congress leader says, “After Rahul and Priyanka, he is the only one in the Congress against whom no one dares complain to Madam (Sonia). Anyone who dares to oppose him can’t last long in
Sources within the party reveal that during the past 10 years, Patel was the brain behind all the political decisions taken by Sonia. A former general secretary of the party says, “There is not a single decision taken by the party during the past 10 years that did not have Patel’s stamp of approval. Whenever Madam said about any issue that she would think it over, everyone knew that she meant to discuss it with Patel and then take a decision.”
Another reason for this trust is that when the Congress was at a low ebb and everyone else deserted the party, Patel remained steadfastly loyal. As the party continues to lose Assembly elections one after the other, following the drubbing it received in the Lok Sabha polls, everyone in the party has been blaming the top leadership for it. However, Patel has not said a word. It shows how the ebb and flow of electoral politics fails to weaken the strength of the bond shared by Sonia and Patel.
Translated from Tehelka Hindi by Naushin Rehman