The Invisible Hand

Understanding the inner world of Sonia’s consigliere—could Ahmed Patel provide a key to her inscrutable government?

Congress president Sonia Gandhi with her political adviser Ahmed Patel. Like her, the adviser has consistently refused ministerships yet is more powerful than most senior ministers. SHEKHAR YADAV / INDIA TODAY GROUP / GETTY IMAGES
Congress president Sonia Gandhi with her political adviser Ahmed Patel. Like her, the adviser has consistently refused ministerships yet is more powerful than most senior ministers. SHEKHAR YADAV / INDIA TODAY GROUP / GETTY IMAGES
01 August, 2011

THE VENUE WAS AT THE ASHOKA HOTEL in New Delhi, and the occasion a rare luncheon for journalists hosted by Congress president Sonia Gandhi after a motley alliance led by her party secured its second consecutive victory in the 2009 elections to the Lok Sabha. The Italian-born Congress chief, who had just stunned the nation yet again when she rejected the coveted post of prime minister, was to visit each of nearly 30 tables where journalists of all hues were sitting. It was unusual for the notoriously inaccessible leader to spend this much time with representatives of the media; they must have been pinching themselves in disbelief.

Journalists in Delhi, known for arriving very late or far too early for events, were all on time for this rare to-do. When senior leaders and ministers started to arrive, some journalists located their leader of choice and quickly walked down to greet them as they ambled in. There was no sign of the Congress chief.

But suddenly there was a commotion—everyone got up from their seats as Ahmed Patel, Sonia Gandhi’s political adviser, walked into the room. It was, they must have assumed, an indicator that Mrs Gandhi would be just a few steps behind. But even after confirming otherwise, few wanted to miss the opportunity to say hello to Patel, who is even less publicly visible and accessible than his boss. He reciprocated the advances, but while doing so his eyes roved through the hall to look over the arrangements.

There was no indication of a victory on his face; in fact there was nothing but a sense of groundedness in his eyes. He is not suave, he is not articulate, he doesn’t have an imposing personality—there is little about him to suggest that he advises the most powerful politician in India. Like the Congress president, the adviser himself has consistently refused ministership; and, again like her, his authority is greater than most senior ministers.

As Sonia Gandhi walked in, wearing a customary dull brown sari so often identified with highbrow NGO activists, all eyes turned away from Patel—just as he would have wanted—and towards the Congress president. It was an especially rare occasion for journalists from small papers that Sonia Gandhi herself would greet each and every one of them.

The scene bordered on comical. She’d spend a few minutes chatting at a table, and as she stood up to walk away, the journalists bragged to themselves and each other: “She recognised me”, and “Did you notice when I introduced myself, she gave a broad smile”, and “Oh yes, she asked that question to me” and “Can you believe it, she admitted that her party had not expected such a big victory”.

But as she made her way around the hall, where was her adviser, her right hand man? Did Ahmed Patel escort her as she was introduced to reporters? No. Was he sharing the same dining table with the Congress president? No. He blended in with the mix of ministers in attendance and hardly anyone noticed when he left the venue—was it before the Congress chief or after? In the presence of Sonia, few even cared to inquire as to his whereabouts. And Patel would have wanted just that—a good bit of anonymity.

Several Congress old-timers have said that Ahmed Patel doesn’t have any extraordinary political acumen. So what is it about this man that keeps him glued to the most powerful family in the country? It’s a question few can honestly answer—even those who interact with him on a daily basis. But the consensus in Delhi, and in his home state of Gujarat, is that it’s a combination of his low profile, an uncanny ability to keep his mouth shut, a cultivated reputation for not throwing around his weight and under-playing his favours to others: it’s not what he can do, but what he doesn’t do.

Patel—here with Digvijay Singh, a general secretary of the All India Congress Committee—listens well and works quietly, making sure not to ruffle too many feathers. SHEKHAR YADAV / INDIA TODAY GROUP / GETTY IMAGES

“He mostly listens and doesn’t say much beyond a few syllables, and sometimes a few sentences,” one union minister said. The minister declined to be identified for a reason that indicates the weight Patel carries at 10 Janpath: “If you quote me by name even once, all other anonymous quotes by other ministers will get attributed to me.”

Kadir Peerzada, a former Surat mayor who is considered close to Patel, described him as “a simple man and an excellent listener, an attribute that ensures others are comfortable talking to him.” “He abhors any kind of publicity,” Peerzada continued. “Along with some of his supporters in Gujarat and Delhi, I was trying to put together a book on Ahmed Bhai, but the moment he came to know about it he got the project shelved. He said he doesn’t want any praise.”

THE GANDHI FAMILY MAY APPRECIATE him for what he doesn’t do, but it was Patel and his invisible hand that played the trick during the March 2011 reconstitution of the Congress Working Committee (CWC), the party’s crucial decision-making arm. Many old-timers were left seething with anger at the appointment of “outsiders”—politicians who had defected from other parties—to important posts in the CWC, and they refused to approve the new committee in protest. Mohan Prakash, who had continuously attacked the Congress in his former position as a spokesman for the Janata Dal, was put in charge of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Jammu and Kashmir—although he will have little to do in Gujarat as long as Ahmed Patel is there. Gulchain Singh Charak, who now oversees Bihar, Punjab and Chandigarh, was pitchforked into the job from the obscurity of the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Council—his own party men had to actually Google his name to find out who he was. Sanjay Nirupam, another longtime Congress critic originally from the Shiv Sena, was given a few states, as was newly-appointed general secretary Madhusudan Mistry from Gujarat, who represents the faction led by Shankersinh Vaghela—a BJP defector who built the saffron party in the state in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Ahmed Patel has no love lost for Vaghela, while Mistry used to be the latter’s close confidant but has since fallen out with him. “So he gets the reward,” a Congress leader chuckled.

Party insiders believe that Patel’s invisible hand doesn’t just move the pieces in Delhi, as shown by an episode from 2007 that either demonstrates Patel’s considerable influence or other ministers’ outsized belief in his power.

In a speech she gave that December ahead of elections in Gujarat, Sonia Gandhi said that the state government was run by “merchants of death”, without citing Chief Minister Narendra Modi by name. Gandhi was referring to the November 2005 killing of an alleged criminal, Sohrabuddin Sheikh, by the Gujarat police, who claimed the man died during a gun battle. It was later revealed, however, that Sheikh was in fact shot in cold blood, and that a state minister close to Modi was involved in planning the murder. In her speech, Gandhi disregarded a decision that had been made by state-level Congress leaders, along with several union ministers and BJP rebels, to avoid references to the 2002 communal riots during the campaign. The local Congress representatives believed that most of the state’s Hindu majority supported Modi’s role in the communal violence, and believed the Congress could only lose Hindu votes by attacking him on that front.

A week later, a senior Congress figure who was then serving as a party spokesperson released a statement in an attempt to spin Sonia’s remarks and soften the attack on Modi. That earned the spokesperson a phone call from Patel, who demanded to know why the statement had been made. Then another spokesperson was dispatched to reiterate Sonia had meant exactly what she said.

When Gandhi decided that the party would run on an anti-riot platform, rumours circulated that Patel had made a quiet arrangement with Modi to raise issues that would bolster the Gujarat chief minister and ensure that the Congress fielded weak candidates in certain seats. One union minister joked, “It is like Ahmed Bhai was ensuring that only 50 to 55 candidates win the elections—a number adequate to retain his Rajya Sabha seat from the state.” But 10 Janpath rejected the rumours.

Patel declined membership on the Gujarat Waqf Board, and when he was offered a place on the State Haj Committee, Chief Minister Narendra Modi wrote to Patel asking him to accept the position, arguing the panel must have at least one Muslim MP. He turned this position down as well, saying that he had no time and would not be able to do the post justice.

Patel with Rahul Gandhi. Ever since he met Rajiv Gandhi in the early 1980s, Patel has never been far from India’s first family. RAVEENDRAN / AFP PHOTO

There is one charge that his critics both at the Centre and in the states level against him: that he accommodates everyone who is on his good side in important boards and committees of central public sector undertakings, the government and the Congress party. “This is the only thing he does, of obliging his people—nothing much. I really don’t know what advice he provides to the Congress president,” said an angry former Congress union minister, who asked not to be named for the same reason as the other ministers and Congress workers.

This view is shared by others in Delhi and in his home state, but Patel seems to go about his work quietly and without ruffling any public feathers. More importantly, he works hard to ensure he doesn’t get any credit—or discredit—while getting things done, an attribute that has played some role in protecting his privileged position.

“For instance,” said Harish Joshi, a senior journalist in Patel’s home district of Bharuch, “he contributed immensely to this crematorium, but insisted that his contribution should not be publicised in the media.”

Joshi was referring to a modern crematorium, which looks more like a holiday resort, set up in Ankleshwar, an industrial town not far from Patel’s native village Piraman. Patel also donated `1 million to a campaign launched by Kadir Peerzada against cow slaughter in Gujarat—a rare move for a Congressman—but wanted “no publicity for it”, Peerzada said. And that’s just the beginning: locals in Bharuch couldn’t stop citing similar stories.

Joshi also told the story of a man named Narendra Modi—a share broker in Rajkot, not the chief minister—whose son, an engineering student, went missing last year. Modi was affiliated with the BJP, but Ahmed Patel still helped him. It so happened that the ATM card of Modi’s son was stolen and used at a bank in Delhi. Modi approached Patel, who called up the Delhi police and told them he wanted the case resolved as soon as possible. “Within 48 hours, the work was done,” Joshi said.

A tranquil site on the banks of the river Narmada that also passes through Bharuch marks the spot of yet another Patel story. “Ahmed Bhai liked the place very much and felt it could be developed into a tourist place. He immediately got the Centre’s tourism secretary to coordinate with Gujarat Government and even had a budget sanctioned for it,” one of his close allies said. “But again, he doesn’t want this to be publicly known.”

In light of his important work fundraising for the Party and negotiating between the Congress chief and her difficult allies, the common claim that Ahmed does little but appoint his friends to posts loses credibility. He believes that the Congress should not abandon its turn in government for reasons of ideology, and that “some compromises” with its allies are necessary to serve that purpose.

This is clearly the line that has prevailed, and Patel’s kind gestures toward his erstwhile political rivals begin to shed light on the calculus of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. Some ministers have claimed that the success of Ahmed’s conciliatory logic made it difficult for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to rein in the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) telecom minister Andimuthu Raja, who allotted 2G mobile spectrum at rock-bottom prices to a group of preferred companies.

Patel turns out to have played a conciliatory role throughout the two terms of the UPA. For instance, when the government looked set to lose a vote of confidence over the 2008 Indo-US nuclear deal, Patel teamed up with the Samajwadi Party’s Amar Singh—an expert in fixing deals across the ideological spectrum—to convince fence-sitting opposition MPs to vote with the government. Allegations that Patel had been involved in bribing MPs to vote in the government’s favour led to an official inquiry which, as often happens, only ended up burying the facts. The inquiry, ironically, covered only Lok Sabha MPs and not those of the upper house, of which Patel and Singh were members, and both Patel and the UPA lived on.

Once again, Patel’s influence can be seen not on the party’s original decision, but on the survival of its alliance after the decision. It’s the imprint of a man who has built a career out of not pushing policies, of not unsettling the social and political status quo, of not getting on anyone’s bad side. On the rare occasions when Patel does upset someone, however, the most the offended party can do is write a letter to Sonia Gandhi—who usually forwards such missives to Patel.

Whether Gandhi asks for explanations from Patel on complaints against him is not known. What is known, though, is his extraordinarily close relationship with the Congress president; he is called in to 10 Janpath for consultations two or three times a week at odd hours of the night. “Nobody really knows what transpires at these discussions,” one senior minister said with a shrug.

So, how does the Congress party function? Who really makes the decisions?

“It is not Ahmed Patel who runs the party, but he is there in crucial decision-making processes,” another anonymous party leader told me. “I am an All-India Congress Committee (AICC) general secretary, and I report directly to the party president. If there is a dispute between me and another leader, Sonia will hear out both of us and she will also get us to talk to each other. Then she finally decides. Here, she may be consulting Patel.” This, it would seem, is the essence of the man: he does not make decisions, but he is present while decisions are being made.

“Nobody really knows how exactly the Congress party functions,” the former Congress union minister quoted earlier said. “If there are government-related issues, they appoint an empowered group of ministers headed by senior ministers and, in case of party issues, you have the Congress Working Committee. It is a highly democratic party but, ironically, often the crucial decisions are taken at one place – 10, Janpath – where the consultation process entirely depends from case to case.”

The inner workings of the party remain opaque: the process through which crucial decisions are made varies “from case to case.” Patel enters to soothe and to fix after decisions have been made—a task he, like the government itself, seems to be doing more and more frequently of late.

AT SOME POINT DURING THE 1980S Babu Bhai, as Patel is fondly called back home in Gujarat, took the then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to visit the ancestral home of Gandhi’s late father Feroze, who hailed from Patel’s home district. At the time, Patel was an MP from Bharuch and the president of the Gujarat Youth Congress, but he hasn’t been far from the Gandhi family ever since his trip with Rajiv.

A three-time Lok Sabha MP, Patel entered into the party’s Delhi operation as the AICC’s joint secretary in 1984, but he was soon promoted and became parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. He was sent to Gujarat in 1986 as the party’s state unit chief in an era of declining fortune for the Gujarat Congress, but by 1988 he had become secretary of the Gandhi family-run Jawahar Bhawan Trust, which distributes scholarships in the name of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and funds a range of social work initiatives. Slowly and quietly, he made his way into the inner coterie of the Gandhi clan. But if we travel back further, it’s clear that Patel’s political instincts were on display even when he was a young child.

In the late 1980s, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was accompanied by a young Ahmed Patel (far left) on a trip to the ancestral home of Gandhi’s late father Feroze, in Gujarat. Here they are greeted by a crowd in Ahmedabad. SHUKDEV BHACHECH

Born on 21 August 1949 to Mohammed Ishaq Patel, a local leader of traders’ cooperatives in Gujarat, and Hawaben Patel, Ahmed was a quiet, disciplined and focused boy. MH Saiyyed, 78, who taught Patel maths, science and english in eighth standard, said he was “a very intelligent, quiet, disciplined and cooperative student. I made him the monitor of the class.”

The more things change, the more they remain the same. Consider what Saiyyed said next: “He is a leader now but never makes you feel this. Even now he respects me and calls me out in a crowd whenever he comes to Piraman. In fact, he played an important role in making me the school principal in 1983.” Perhaps Patel’s critics in Delhi have it wrong, and his habit of rewarding friends and his instinct for realpolitik are simply evidence of a non-political, non-instrumental pattern of loyalty and respect. Or perhaps Patel brings his political instincts everywhere, even fixing deals for school principal appointments.

Not wanting to miss his chance to remark on the man, Patel’s neighbour in Piraman, Yaqub Mohammed Unia, chipped in as well: “Like a good cricketer who would stop the ball at crucial junctures while fielding, Babu Bhai ensured all important trains on the Mumbai route would halt at Ankleshwar”—a city in Patel’s home district of Bharuch.

“He was a batsman and captain of the Piraman cricket team,” Unia said. “He was not a regular bowler, but like Sachin Tendulkar he would be called in when a breakthrough was needed.” The village’s deputy sarpanch, Ahmed Hatiya, hurried to add: “That may be so, but then his googlies could send even acclaimed batsmen into a tizzy.”

There you are: a studious, quiet and focused school student; an astute mild mannered politician; and as a college-time cricketer, a steady batsman who could bowl a tricky spin ball. But what does this tell us about Ahmed Patel the political adviser to Sonia Gandhi?

That he keeps his mouth shut—he makes efforts not to commit nor to reject or reveal. He underplays as well as conceals the favours he has done to others—ensuring that those who are left out don’t feel that they are, or at least that they are less jealous than they might have been. He bowls the googly to cut critics to size under the sanctuary of 10 Janpath. They’re all qualities of a survivor who ensures that opposition to him is minimal—regardless of the fact that he has shown little evidence of political genius, little in the way of new ideas or directions for the party. To say that he had a pivotal role in the Congress-led government’s second consecutive victory in 2009 is an over-statement; to say that he had no role is also not true.

But the irony of Ahmed Patel’s quiet power is that he is quickly losing electoral ground in his home state while he remains glued to the centre of power in Delhi. In the Bharuch Lok Sabha constituency—Patel’s home ground—the Congress party has lost the last four elections, even though it is Patel who presides over the final selection of candidates in Gujarat.

Some leaders in the state say that even Patel himself cannot win from here. A section of the party wants his son to contest from Bharuch—but this has not yet happened, and the reasons are not difficult to see.

“He hardly comes here twice a year and remains surrounded by some of his cronies—there is little access to people like us. The cronies virtually corner him. Small wonder the Congress has not much presence here,” an elderly Congress office-bearer in Patel’s native village said.

“There was a marriage in his family [his son’s marriage in March] which we celebrated here on our own, but hardly any one of us could call up Delhi at Hotel Rajputana and get to speak and wish him,” the Congressman added, not wishing to be identified, “since Piraman is a small town and everyone knows everyone.”

Remaining closely associated with the Gandhi clan is not just a luxury for Ahmed Patel—it’s a necessity. He is an unexpected figure on India’s apparently ruthless political landscape—a man who has enormous political influence and yet lacks political vision or drive. He stays true to the Gandhi line, even when—as with the family’s decision to position the party against the riots in the last Gujarat elections—it costs the party votes and costs him his seat. He settles and soothes, minimizing conflict over ideologies and over illegalities. In the process, he might have soothed and reconciled his party and his patrons into their biggest crisis yet.