Newsmaker: Master of the back channels

Roundabout the time that the rest of India prepares to go to sleep, the Congress party’s master tactician Ahmed Patel starts working the back channels. That is where he works best, the back channels, away from the media flashbulbs and mikes thrust down throats.

One victory might not indicate a turn in fortunes for his party, but Patel’s own victory in the Gujarat Rajya Sabha polls cliff-hanger should count as a masterclass in the kind of politics he epitomised – displaying none of the bluster of Amit Shah and his followers but in the end emerging victor when everyone had thought he had lost. Two rebel Congressmen caught showing their vote, when they thought they would not be caught. In short, another rabbit had been pulled out of the hat, and party president Sonia Gandhi’s reputation had been saved.

Patel is almost chronically shy of the spotlight. He has rarely been photographed or quoted by an increasingly aggressive media. He stayed away from joining the Union cabinet when the UPA was in power between 2004 and 2014. Common wisdom says he could easily have, being Sonia’s trusted lieutenant. Instead, he chose to deliver on Sonia’s plans as the Congress president’s political secretary.

Doing so has involved different things at different times, and the call to deliver has never been easy. It has meant getting the numbers in Parliament during the vote of confidence against the Manmohan Singh government in 2008 after the Left parties withdrew support to the UPA over the nuclear deal. This also meant getting the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party to vote on the side of the government when the situation demanded. This was no easy job, at least where the Samajwadi Party was concerned. Mulayam Singh Yadav never forgot the perceived slight to the party when the UPA won for the first time in 2004 and Amar Singh had been dragged to the UPA meeting by the CPI(M)’s Harkishan Singh Surjeet but had not been acknowledged by Sonia. Yet, he got the Samajwadi Party supremo to vote behind the Congress party. The Lutyens grapevine attributes those successes to some serious back channel work and plain speaking over CBI cases that the two leaders faced.

For shunning the limelight, Patel is usually described as low profile. Actually, he is anything but so. In fact, he is what the Bharatiya Janata Party says a Congressman cannot be – a 24x7 politician. In his own retiring, away-from-the-limelight sort of way, he has not been known to take the foot off the pedal when the occasion demands, putting up command performances at short notice.

Congress insiders say he Patel been ruthless in achieving his goals. That was why he was the inside man who acted as the go-between the party and government during UPA rule. That was also why he attended the UPA-Left coordination committee meetings on occasion, and was present at the subsequent press briefings to ensure that details of tough negotiations with Prakash Karat and other Left leaders did not enter the public domain.

Patel’s victory in the Rajya Sabha polls wasn’t just a message to Shah, who had staked much in the election because he believed Patel was to blame for his legal problems during UPA rule. It was also a message to Rahul Gandhi, still considered Sonia’s heir-apparent as party president, and his insistence on a corporate-style party organisation. The Congress vice-president is not known to warm instinctively to Patel. So it was important that within parenthesis, as the new Congress Rajya Sabha MP from Gujarat spoke of a rosy future for the Congress under Rahul’s leadership, were the unsaid words: “Old-style politics still works.”

It is difficult to imagine Patel would ever be adversarial to Rahul or have a falling out in any way. It is safer to wager a bet that he would finally win Rahul’s confidence even though he is from the so-called old guard. Patel has his track record to prove that. He had been close to Sanjay Gandhi and was elected as a Lok Sabha MP in the March 1977 elections that unseated Indira Gandhi and Sanjay was the power behind the throne. In 1980, in the elections that brought Indira back to power, he was elected for a second time to the Lok Sabha. In the interim, he had become president of the Gujarat unit of the Youth Congress.

As a Sanjay Gandhi acolyte, it might have been correct to assume that he would be out of favour with Rajiv Gandhi, whose politics was very different from his brother’s. But that was not the case. He was elected to the Lok Sabha a third time in 1984 and topped that with a post that signalled his proximity to Rajiv – he became parliamentary secretary t o Rajiv, who was then Prime Minister. Apparently, it was Rajiv’s fondness for Gujarati snacks, which Patel started bringing in loads, which helped him find his way into Rajiv’s inner circle. When Rajiv was assassinated and P.V. Narasimha Rao became Prime Minister, he once again found a place among the new Prime Minister’s set of confidantes. His first election to the Rajya Sabha was in 1993 – that was after two successive losses in the 1989 and 1991 Lok Sabha elections – and with Wednesday’s victory, he has won a Rajya Sabha seat five times. He is now Sonia’s close confidante and a true-blue Congress loyalist, in other words a Congressman who has sworn allegiance to the Nehru-Gandhis.

Ensuring a victory in his own election appears to have put some win in the Congress party’s sails. Sonia Gandhi launched into a sharp attack on the BJP in Parliament on August 9, Quit India day. Immediately after his victory, the Congress convened a meeting of opposition parties to discuss strategy. More could be in store in the coming days. Sometimes a man working the back channels does occupy centre-stage. The Gujarat Rajya Sabha election was one such moment.

Ananda Majumdar