Veteran Congress leader Ahmed Patel has always been known as a master strategist in political circles. As a political secretary to the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, the seasoned politician from Gujarat has always held the status as one of the most powerful leaders within his party. He is one of those few leaders, who enjoys a good rapport with leaders from the opposition parties as well. It was in this context that political pundits found his struggle to secure his Rajya Sabha seat for the fifth time utterly surprising.
He had more than enough MLAs in his party to pull off an easy win, but the BJP allegedly at the behest of its president Amit Shah made it incredibly difficult for Patel. Nearly a dozen MLAs deserted him; and his former colleague Shankarsinh Vaghela made a shocking announcement that he was quitting Congress.
Fearing more poaching from the BJP, Patel transported his remaining 44 MLAs to Bengaluru. Within couple of days of the MLAs’ arrival, the Income Tax department, which is controlled by the Centre’s Narendra Modi government, raided the resort, where the Congress legislators were staying. Some feared that it was Amit Shah’s way of intimidating both Patel and his flock of lawmakers. But the experienced politician he has been, 66-year-old Patel pulled off a coup by keeping most of his flock together and even engineering cross-voting by MLAs, who BJP had heavily relied upon to cause embarrassment to Congress party.
There was no doubt that Patel’s defeat in the election year would have been deemed as a personal loss for Sonia Gandhi. In fact channels such as Times Now and Republic began projecting the Rajya Sabha contest as Shah vs Sonia.
When the results came out on the morning of 9 August, Patel had outsmarted Shah in his own game. He had won with the support of one MLA each from JDU and GPP, both were considered to be BJP’s allies.
Media shy and a man of few words, Patel has since been inundated with media requests. On Friday (11 August), the man of the moment spoke exclusively to me in his first considered interview since winning the Rajya Sabha elections.
I began by asking whether he was nervous about his prospects when he saw MLAs’ tally come down from 57 to 44.
AP: This was their strategy right from the beginning, to demoralise the Congress party. My supporters may have been demoralised, but our MLAs were never demoralised. Their morale was always very high. They never felt demoralised. Of the 44, only one did gadbadi (wrongdoing), rest all remained intact. Majority of my MLAs, one third of them, were tribals. They are very poor and do not have much money. Yet, they stood firm. They were rock solid in their belief with Congress’s ideology.
RJ: What personal vendetta does Amit Shah have against you?
AP: I don’t know what problem does he (Amit Shah) have with me? I’m still trying to understand that but not able to understand. More crucial point is that he wanted to finish Congress party, demoralise our party since he was preparing for the next assembly elections. He was trying to ensure how he could demoralise Congress and our party workers so that they can sit at home.
RJ: On 25 July, I wrote that Shankarsinh Vaghela leaving Congress was a good thing for both Congress and you. Do you agree? Do you think his exit will make Congress stronger?
AP: He (Vaghela) was putting too many demands. He was forcing me to appoint him as the new PCC of Gujarat. He wanted to be in control of the ticket distribution. No party, certainly not Congress party, will accept such conditions. The way he was forcing, I don’t know what would have happened if he was still in Congress. But I don’t want to comment too much on him.
RJ: Do you think your victory will boost the morale of your workers on the ground?
AP: Of course this has boosted their morale. Today, they are charged up. They want to come out of their houses. They want some programmes. They want to go out to fight the BJP.
RJ: Yes, I saw your supporters celebrating that night (9 August) even at 3 AM in the morning.
AP: The Gujarat PCC office was never open at 4 AM. Not only did we open the PCC office, they were celebrating and saying that those who left the party were good riddance.
RJ: One thing I noticed that Ahmed Patel part 1 was reclusive, camera shy and always worked from behind the scene. Ahmed Patel part 2 is aggressive, appearing on camera while also working on his strategy.
AP: They forced me. They forced me to come on camera. I had no choice since I myself was contesting the polls.
RJ: Will we see this aggressive face of yours even in future from now until Gujarat elections?
AP: I’s a team work. I’s not that I want o project my face all the time. Even now, I will travel to Gujarat and contribute to (party’s win) whatever I’m capable of.
RJ: It seems you, Arjun Modwadhia and Shaktisinh Gohil make a fomidable trio.
AP: It’s team work. It’s not just three of us. There are 30 of us there. It’s not that we are only relying on 3-4 people. Unless a large group of people, ordinary Congress workers join the movement, our victory will be impossible.
RJ: Do you think NCP let you down?
AP: I don’t want to comment on who let me down and who didn’t, but I had the opportunity to see the true colour of few people.
RJ: And JDU pleasantly surprised you?
AP: I felt so, I felt so.
RJ: Would you then consider forming an alliance with these like-minded people?
AP: I will speak to top leadership to decide not just the alliance but also the strategy for other things. We will have only one agenda, that how we can defeat them (BJP).
RJ: There will be elections in Gujarat in few months. Will you spend more time in Gandhinagar or here in Delhi?
AP: Both places. But I will try and give more time to Gujarat so that I can contribute some.
RJ: I know every leader will say they are winning. But how confident are you now post your victory?
AP: Very confident. The morale of our workers has got a boost. I’m pretty confident that if we play our cards well, we can win.
RJ: If can also tell me, how did Sonia Gandhi react?
AP: She was very happy. She called me to congratulate. Even the vice president called me. It was the victory for Congress and not just my win.