Opinion: When Ahmed Patel caught Indira’s eye

Venkat Parsa

A Muslim face from Gujarat caught the fancy of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in 1977, when she handpicked him to contest the General Election from Bharuch. Ahmed Patel was the second Muslim to be elected from Gujarat, after Ehsaan Jafari. After battling post-Covid-19 complications for over a month, the sad and unfortunate end came on Wednesday morning.

Handpicked by Indira Gandhi in 1977 and made Parliamentary Secretary to Prime Minister by Rajiv Gandhi in 1985, it was his association with Sonia Gandhi from 1997 that helped Ahmed Patel scale the political heights. He remained a stellar leader for close two decades during the stewardship of the Congress by Sonia Gandhi.

Indira Gandhi had the distinction of electing the first Muslim President of India in 1967, in Dr Zakir Hussain. Similarly, she got the first Muslim Chief Justice of India in Mohammed Hidayatullah in 1968. Indira Gandhi also brought in Ahmed Patel in 1977.

Finding a Muslim face in the Youth Congress in Gujarat in 1976, Indira Gandhi decided on giving Ahmed Patel the Congress ticket for the Bharuch parliamentary seat for contesting the Lok Sabha polls in 1977.

Ahmed Patel won in 1977, against the wave, which swept the Congress out of power for the first time since the Indian Independence in 1947. His winning streak continued till 1989, when finally the BJP secured a stranglehold on the State to which Mahatma Gandhi belonged.

Ahmed Patel journey commenced then. He won in 1980 and 1984, but lost his election in 1989. It was then that Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao brought him to the Rajya Sabha.

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After three terms in Lok Sabha, Ahmed Patel went on to serve five terms in the Rajya Sabha. His recent election to Rajya Sabha was in 2017, when he created history. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the then BJP President Amit Shah vowed to get him defeated. Ahmed Patel stumped Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo to romp home to victory in a nail-biting finish.

Ahmed Patel rose high to become close to Rajiv Gandhi, under whom he served briefly as Parliamentary Secretary to Prime Minister in 1985. When Sonia Gandhi stepped into politics, by announcing her decision to campaign for the Congress on December 29, 1997, Ahmed Patel became her closest aide, helping her navigate through the political thicket.

Ahmed Patel served as Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s Political Secretary for about 16 years, when he grew in his personal stature and political standing.

With political contacts across party lines, he was able to assist Sonia Gandhi in stitching up political alliances, whenever the need arose.

After Sharad Pawar, P A Sangma and Tariq Anwar raised the banner of revolt against Congress President Sonia Gandhi in 1999, on grounds of her foreign origins, the trio were expelled from the Congress.

Later, when the Congress failed to muster a majority on its own in Maharashtra in 1999, the Congress tied up with Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party to form the government in Maharashtra, ending the BJP-Shiv Sena rule in Maharashtra. Ahmed Patel played a prominent role in it.

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The Congress weathered a storm after the revolt of Sharad Pawar. For Sonia Gandhi, it was a huge shock. It was only in 1998 that she had made Sharad Pawar the Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha, in her capacity as Chairperson of the Congress Parliamentary Party. Ahmed Patel remained loyal at such a critical and crucial juncture.

During 1999 and 2004, the Congress expanded its footprint across India that established Sonia Gandhi as a leader in her own right. It was during those critical days, Ahmed Patel remained fiercely loyal to Sonia Gandhi.

Ahmed Patel played a prominent role in shaping the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) presided over by Sonia Gandhi, which brought the Congress back to power at the Centre in 2004.

During the 10-year tenure in office of the Congress-UPA Government at the Centre from 2004 to 2014, as Congress President’s Political Secretary, Ahmed Patel played a key role.

After Rahul Gandhi’s election as Congress President in 2017, he was responsible for organizing the Congress Plenary in 2018. Under Rahul Gandhi, Ahmed Patel was made the Congress Treasurer.

Under the new dispensation, Ahmed Patel continued to play a role of mentor. While most leaders looked up to him, even Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi relied on Ahmed Patel.

For Congressmen, he was the ultimate word. Congress men will continue to remember Ahmed Patel.

Venkat Parsa is a senior journalist and writer based in New Delhi.

(Views expressed here are personal)

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