Why Sonia Gandhi And Ahmed Patel Were The Perfect Team
If you were to ask people outside of Delhi to pick Ahmed Patel in a group photo, my suppose even the politically conscious would have a hard time identifying him.
He was that kind of man. He avoided being the centre of attention, hated giving interviews, stayed out of the limelight, and loved anonymity. However, during the ten years that the UPA was in power, he was one of the most important people in India; his influence was surpassed only by Sonia Gandhi and during UPA I, at least, by Manmohan Singh.
Patel was a career politician from Gujarat who first came to national attention when Rajiv Gandhi appointed him one of his three parliamentary secretaries in 1985 (there were three of them, Arun Singh, Patel and Oscar Fernandes, leading to many jokes about the Amar-Akbar-Anthony parallels.)
But after that brief touch of recognition, his career went through the usual ups and downs; sometimes, the downs were pretty bad. His luck turned after Sonia Gandhi took over the Congress party and looked for people she could trust. Having been part of Rajiv’s team was a great advantage in Sonia’s early years because she understood that you were committed to the core values of the Congress of liberalism and secularism. This made Patel a perfect choice.
It also helped that Patel and Sonia fit together naturally. After some initial setbacks early in her political career, Sonia had come to the view that the days of one-party supremacy were fading. The best Congress could hope for was to lead a coalition of forces outside the BJP.
This was fine, but difficult to implement because the rest of the so-called “secular forces” could be untrustworthy and corrupt. She learned this the hard way in 1999 when, after the fall of the AB Vajpayee government and the takeover of an opposition coalition, the Samajwadi Party broke up the coalition and held secret talks with LK Advani of the BJP.
Sonia Gandhi needed someone who was soft-spoken and persuasive enough for other parties to join in a possible coalition formation, but who would not betray her trust or misuse his authority. Patel was that kind of person. He had no high-profile political ambitions, was deeply committed to fighting the BJP ideology, and was well-liked across the political spectrum.
Sonia and Patel made a perfect team perhaps because, on some level, they were alike. They were both shy, a little reluctant to trust the outlandish promises of other politicians and uncomfortable being in the public eye. But unlike Sonia, who sometimes took a little time to get close to strangers, Patel had been around politicians for most of his adult life and knew how to talk to them.
Between 2002 and 2004, Sonia Gandhi reinvented Congress as a party that upheld not only liberal and secular values, but recognized that the benefits of economic reforms had not been fairly allocated to all sectors of society. While shaping this message, Patel served as his ambassador to the political world, keeping him informed of what was happening and cultivating future allies. When, against all odds, the BJP was defeated in 2004 due to the platform Sonia had built, it was up to Patel to help create the coalition that would later become the UPA. He did such a good job of forging alliances and lowering the expectations of greedy allies that Sonia Gandhi even told me, in an official interview, that she could never have done it without him.
Sonia-Patel’s team performed well throughout UPA I, but after Congress won its second election, trouble began. There was the void caused by Sonia’s absences for health reasons. The rise of Rahul Gandhi led to speculation that Patel was less comfortable in a changing dispensation. The predominant strategy in some parts of Congress was against the coalitions and became “no alliances”, we do it alone. And finally, when things started to go wrong for the government, Manmohan Singh retreated into silent hibernation while his spectacularly inept PMO mishandled the situation.
In the end, Patel and Pranab Mukherjee spent hours together every night trying to solve the mess that the government had created. But it was very little and the government was being pushed in so many different directions that there was no way Patel could hold the fort. He once told me, exasperated, that it was clear that the Prime Minister had lost control of the government: there were no policies, there was no direction, it was all firefighting.
And as the Modi phenomenon took hold of the public imagination, the Congress that Sonia had built to confuse her supporters. At times, it was still the reasonable and moderate party that wanted to help the marginalized of society, the one that made common cause with the allies. And sometimes, it was to go back to pretending the old days were back, to acting like the boss once again with a charismatic leader who would influence the masses. Whatever this new avatar of Congress tried, it never worked, and the feeling grew that the leadership had become fickle, capricious, and isolated from the soul of the party.
I have no idea how Patel felt about it because he was too discreet to say a word. But until the end, he remained by Sonia’s side, discreet and loyal. Like the rest of us, I probably have no idea where Congress is going. On the other hand, no one can take away his place in political history: the ten years in which he played such a key role in Sonia Gandhi’s reinvention of Congress and her glory period.
He really was a man for his time.