Congress leader Ahmed Patel passed away in the early hours of 25 November. Though associated with the Congress for over four decades, he became a pillar of the party during the presidentship of Sonia Gandhi which began in 1999.
His death will leave a huge void in the party and is a major loss to all those who interacted with him.
The Mosque at Mother Teresa Crescent
My first encounter with Ahmed Patel was at a small mosque in President's Estate, very close to Patel’s 23 Mother Teresa Crescent Road residence, popularly called Number 23 in Congress circles.
It was still the UPA period and Patel was considered one of the most influential people in the country. One had heard several rumours about the power he wielded behind the scenes.
But at the mosque, one saw nothing of that power. It was the juma, or Friday congregational prayer. Patel quietly came and sat in the left corner of one of the middle rows of the mosque, listened to the sermon and finished his prayers.
As he left, he quietly took out some money out of his pocket and put in the plastic container meant for donations.
With his palm, he concealed the amount he was donating, in line with the Islamic advice of doing acts of charity in secret.
When other attendees approached him outside the mosque, he greeted them politely and asked about their well being.
This sight was repeated almost every occasion I landed up at that particular mosque during Friday prayer. One of the mosque employees later told me that Mr Patel has been a frequent and generous donor there.
In many ways, this reflected Ahmed Patel's style of functioning.
Be it charity, faith or politics, he went about them silently, with humility and a personal touch.
This was in sharp contrast to the image created of him in Lutyens' Delhi circles – of being a wheeler-dealer or someone who is an expert on cloak-and-dagger politics.
‘He Carried His Immense Power Lightly’
In reality, there was very little difference between Patel's public and private demeanour. He kept a low profile but everyone who interacted with him said that he was always frank and extremely polite in the way he spoke.
“He (Ahmed Patel ) carried his immense power lightly and treated every single person with utmost decency,” says Varun Santhosh, aide to Congress MP Jairam Ramesh.
Another Congress leader said on an earlier occasion that Ahmed Patel “has the acumen of the Godfather but chose to remain consigliere.”
During my subsequent interactions with him, I realised that the 'cloak and dagger' rumours about him were just that – rumours.
Only one part of the gossip turned out to be true – that he met people late at night.
Referring to his late night interactions, Congress spokesperson Jaiveer Shergill wrote on Twitter, “During one of my many midnight interactions with Ahmed Patel ji at No.23, I asked him ‘sir dont u get tired of meeting so many people till late night?’ He smiled & replied 'remember Jaiveer,sabko saath leke chaloge too aage badoge'.”
My first proper meeting with Ahmed Patel was at his residence at around 1 AM. We were introduced by a mutual acquaintance. He inquired about my work, family, where I stayed and if I was happy with what I was doing. As I left, he gave duas for my success and well being.
Our subsequent interactions were on similar lines, though he became more open about sharing his own political assessments than in the first interaction.
‘A Quintessential Organisation Man’
One thing I realised during the course of these interactions is that compared to many in the Congress, who viewed things from an abstract or policy prism, Patel's thinking was always empirical. His understanding greatly stemmed from his own political astuteness and also from regularly interacting with people on the ground. As is the case with most good politicians, he could remember names of party workers across several states.
Outside the party, he regularly interacted with leaders from other parties, industrial barons, civil society members and, of course, journalists.
But the most remarkable thing about Patel is that irrespective of whether he was speaking to a rich industrialist or a humble Congress worker, his tone would remain the same – frank and soft-spoken.
A lot was made out of Patel's alleged differences with Rahul Gandhi's team after the latter assumed more responsibility in the Congress.
While there was some truth to the differences, a great deal of it was also exaggeration. In reality, the two shared a relationship of mutual respect. The difference between the two didn't stem from ideology or ego, but simply style of functioning.
Patel was a firm believer in providing the human touch – having person-to-person dealings. This was often seen as outdated by process-oriented people close to Rahul Gandhi.
For them, Patel's night time darbars and the culture of such informal mechanisms of communications were redundant.
However, even this changed gradually and Rahul Gandhi on a number of occasions deferred to Patel's political wisdom and crisis-management skills.
“He had an unflappable temperament and was a very effective trouble-shooter,” says Jairam Ramesh.
The Congress will really miss its ace trouble shooter. Someone who could be trusted to smooth over crises by using his personal equations and negotiating skills.
It will miss a figure who could negotiate the party's relationship with diverse entities – industry, media, civil society, religious leaders and even other political parties.
I also have no doubt that the mosque at Mother Teresa Crescent will also miss one of its most regular attendees.
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