Congress veteran Ahmed Patel has admitted he learnt “bitter lessons” in his Rajya Sabha election when a battery of legislators openly tried to sabotage his winning prospects but asserted it ended up helping the party separate the wheat from the chaff.
In a candid interview to IANS where he spoke about issues afflicting the party, Patel, political secretary to Congress President Sonia Gandhi, said: “We will need to be careful in future, keep a close watch and look into individual grievances of party leaders and MLAs.”
Asked if this meant rebel leader Shankersinh Vaghela was correct in his claims that the problems and aspirations of MLAs were ignored, he said: “Well, not exactly. But we will look into the details and the genuineness of the grievances for sure. But that is no justification for stabbing the party in the back like this.”
“It was the toughest electoral battle of my career. I have fought five Lok Sabha elections and four Rajya Sabha, but this was the toughest,” 67-year-old Patel admitted.
“We learnt bitter lessons but we have emerged stronger. This entire episode (of sabotage) has automatically led to purging of people whom we could not trust. We know who is ours and who is not, and who was never,” said the Congress leader, who won his fifth term after two votes against him by rebel MLAs got invalidated.
Good riddance of bad rubbish? “No, no, no, don’t use such words; not bad rubbish, but those who were not the party’s well-wishers have left,” said Patel, who belongs to south Gujarat’s Bharuch district.
Six Congress MLAs resigned in the run-up to the Rajya Sabha election on August 8, and eight others, including rebel leader Vaghela, openly cross-voted against the party’s official nominee Patel in an election which turned into a battleground with four candidates in the fray for three seats.
Two of them, BJP President Amit Shah and Patel, were the most powerful leaders in their respective parties and the Bharatiya Janata Party was bent upon seeing Patel out — also to snub Sonia Gandhi.
Within 24 hours of Patel’s victory, reportedly with the support of the lone Janata Dal-United legislator Chhotubhai Vasava, the eight Congress rebels were sacked, and the party also issued sack letters to the six who had resigned because they had done so after a whip to vote for Patel.
Patel added: “The first and the most important outcome of this election is that there is new spirit and sense of determination, which had dissipated and given way to inertia.”
“The mood has changed now. Sometimes it is the will to win alone that overrides and takes care of several issues.”
What was in this victory that has sent a current of energy through the party, something that did not happen even after the Congress lost all 26 Lok Sabha seats in 2014?
“When you pull life out of the jaws of death, you don’t want it to happen again. All our people, the entire party was made to feel completely helpless by the enemies very much within us. This was not the case in 2014, though it was a humiliating defeat,” pointed out Patel, whom Vaghela had promised to vote for, only to take a U-turn at the eleventh hour.
Asked if he was now going to take active charge of the Gujarat Congress and lead from the front, given that he has set the party rank and file a target of 125 seats (in a House of 182), he said an emphatic “No.”
“I will be a facilitator, I will keep a much closer watch and do my best possible to meet this target. I am not for Chief Ministership, if you are suggesting even something remotely like that.”
So who is going to channelise this new energy in the party since every leader in the Congress seems to be a Chief Ministerial candidate, the key party strategist laughs, but admits: “This is a big challenge for us, the tendency to count the eggs even before they are hatched.”
So, what do you do with this? “We will sort it out. See, sometimes small distractions and minor tussles blur the big picture, the bottom line. This episode has come as a blessing in disguise. There is a realisation that a victory is now a necessity for survival.”
“Once the bottom line becomes your goal, other things start falling in place.”
Gujarat is expected to go to the polls in December this year.
With Vaghela gone, does the Congress have a Chief Ministerial candidate with state-level stature?
“I won’t like to go into Vaghela’s claims, but I would say your ability to fetch victory on a tough ground has to be demonstrated through adequate evidence,” Patel said, tacitly referring to Vaghela’s erstwhile Rashtriya Janata Party’s ability to win only four seats.
“We have not thought of a Chief Ministerial candidate, we will do so when the need arises. Right now, the immediate priority is put our house in order,” he said.