Consider all that Ahmad Patel does: He oversees the party, advises Congress president Sonia Gandhi, pre-empts administrative moves by the government so that the party can get full advantage of them and scouts for new emerging talent to incorporate in the Congress.
He is not a particularly profound or inspiring politician. His speeches are pedestrian, his interventions are sensible rather than brilliant and he is a middle-of-the-road politician, an ordinary man of simple habits. Neither his children nor their spouses have embarrassed him by showing any inclination to join politics. His son-in-law is an advocate but keeps such a low profile that you wouldn't know it. Patel also handles money -- a lot of it -- but it leaves him unmoved.
It is this man who has played a key role in putting the government together. When we caught up with him in the middle of the ongoing election, his greatest regret was that he was just so busy he had no time to play with his grandchildren.
How busy he has been, we saw on May 22, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced the first tranche of his council of ministers. While Deputy Chairman Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia did not take oath and neither did Law Minister HR Bhardwaj or Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh, Ghulam Nabi Azad did -- because Patel wanted him in the government. The others, he felt, could do other jobs as efficiently.
Over the years, Patel has emerged as the quintessential backroom boy, not least because of his peculiar habits. He works late into the night and Congressmen are known to have been woken up by his call at 2 am, asking them to do this or that. He is organised in the way he works and one mobile phone is kept free all the time for calls from 10 Janpath. He never gossips, no loose talk is encouraged and he has a thorough understanding of the bureaucracy and whom to deploy where.
Patel has been a Rajya Sabha member since 1993, and today when youngsters question his claim to knowing mass politics, they are probably unaware that he was not just a member of the sixth but also the seventh and eighth Lok Sabha and was president of the Gujarat unit of the Youth Congress from 1977 to 1982.
While his election to the sixth Lok Sabha established him as a political leader of promise, it was during his second term in the Lok Sabha -- 1980-84 -- that Patel really came into his own. Rajiv Gandhi was being groomed to take over, and the young, somewhat shy Patel found favour with the young leader. Eyewitnesses recall that whenever Gandhi visited Gujarat, Ahmed Patel would rush towards his aircraft carrying a plastic bag containing sev bhusa, chura and peanuts, Gujarati delicacies that Gandhi was particularly fond of.
When Indira Gandhi was assassinated and Rajiv came to power in 1984 with a brute 400-plus majority in the Lok Sabha, Patel was promoted rapidly as party apparatchik. He was made joint secretary of the Congress, briefly appointed parliamentary secretary and later general secretary of the Congress in addition to handling his responsibilities as a Member of Parliament. Little wonder then that he knows the party like the back of his hand.
Now that the office of Congress president and prime minister are held by different persons, he has a unique position of power in both government and party, without being a member of the former. This is a conscious choice. He has been offered ministerships half a dozen times but he has always rejected it -- making him one of the most sought after men in the Congress. He has done well by this. He enjoys wielding power over individuals rather than joining that ephemeral thing called government.