The soft-spoken, mild-mannered Ahmed Patel is facing the toughest fight of his political career as he seeks to return to the Rajya Sabha for a fifth consecutive term. And ranged against him is the entire might of the BJP. It's a battle that BJP chief Amit Shah is determined to win, evidently, at all costs, and one that Ahmed Patel can ill-afford to lose.
No Rajya Sabha election in recent times has come anywhere close to acquiring the prestige, needle and the personal undertones that one is witnessing this time around. It has, in fact, escalated to an all out war. The stakes are much higher than ever before. It's payback time for Amit Shah, who holds Ahmed Patel and Sonia Gandhi responsible for his incarceration and subsequent externment out of Gujarat during the UPA years at the Centre. He seems intent on ensuring Patel's defeat in his home state in order to politically humiliate the two.
For Ahmed Patel and the Congress party, it's a battle they need to win desperately. Defeat would mean not just the loss of another seat but would underscore the party's dwindling political fortunes and the inability of its leaders to retain their seats.
Image: Reuters photo
Already reeling under pressure following Shankersinh Vaghela's exit from the party, Patel's loss would be a major body blow to the party ahead of the state Assembly elections due later this year, besides further shrinking the Congress leadership's political clout.
The targeting of senior leaders and ensuring their defeat is in line with the practice that the Modi-Shah duo has been adopting in Gujarat for some time now. During the 2012 Assembly elections, the BJP specifically targeted Arjun Modhwadia and Shaktisinh Gohil, in the hope of robbing them of their political legitimacy and depriving the party of their leadership in the state Assembly.
The BJP tried this to a limited extent in the last Lok Sabha elections too by trying to pin down Rahul Gandhi in Amethi by pitting Smriti Irani against him.
In many ways the wheel has turned a full circle as far as targeting of individual leaders is concerned. In the 1984 General Elections that followed Indira Gandhi's assassination, the Congress under Rajiv Gandhi ensured the defeat of prominent opposition leaders such as Atal Bihari Vajpayee, HN Bahuguna and Chandrashekhar by fielding the likes of Madhavrao Scindia and Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan against them.
The "operation unseat Ahmed Patel" has been in the works for several months. The Congress leadership and Ahmed Patel were aware of Amit Shah's efforts to wean away Shankersinh Vaghela. Both Sonia Gandhi as well as Rahul Gandhi sought to dissuade Vaghela by indicating that they were prepared to give him a much larger role.
Vaghela set an almost impossible price on his head. He demanded that's the party should declare him as the party's chief ministerial candidate in addition to at least a 100 tickets being given to his followers. The party was willing to project him as the CM candidate, but found it difficult to accede to his demand for a 100 tickets to his followers.
Vaghela began his political career in the Jan Sangh and joined the Janata Party. After its split, he was a member of the BJP from 1977 till the time he rebelled and left the party in 1996. His ties with the prime minister go back a long time. Legend has it that in his days as a pracharak, Narendra Modi used to ride pillion on Vaghela's motorcycle as the two would travel across the states.
Switching sides is not something new to Vaghela. He quit the BJP in 1996 and flew 55 of his MLAs to Khajurahao to prevent them from being poached by the BJP. He was made the state president of the Congress party in 2002, he was the textile minister in the Union cabinet from 2004 to 2009, Union minister in the UPA government at the Centre, and the campaign conveyor of the Congress party in the 2012 Assembly elections.
Ahmed Patel, on the other hand, was among the handful of leaders like Ashok Gehlot, Digvijaya Singh and Tarun Gogoi to be handpicked by Rajiv Gandhi. He was one of the three parliamentary secretaries to the former prime minister and worked closely with him. He later went on to become the political secretary to Sonia Gandhi. The 67-year-old Patel shuns the spotlight and prefers to work from behind the scenes. He is the eyes and ears of the Congress president and has a good rapport with leaders across the political spectrum.
Patel has been under pressure ever since Rahul Gandhi's rise in the party with speculations rife over their relationship. If he retains his seat despite the odds, he will prove a point not just to the BJP but also to some of his detractors within his own party.
Over the years, Patel has developed a reputation for quietly getting things done. This time around, he needs to display those qualities more than ever before.