New Delhi: The sudden passing away of veteran Congress leader Ahmed Patel has resulted in a deep void in the party, with several leaders describing him as being “irreplaceable”.
Patel didn’t just play the role of being the party’s chief strategist and troubleshooter, but also served as interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s closest aide, reliable confidante and right-hand man.
Sonia described the leader as her “irreplaceable comrade and a faithful colleague”. He enjoyed the trust of the top leadership, and his word at any given point had their backing.
Now, according to many Congress leaders, it seems unlikely that anyone from the existing crop of leaders in the party can play the same role for Rahul Gandhi — who is expected to take on the party’s mantle from Sonia.
ThePrint spoke to a cross-section of Congress leaders, most of whom believed that there isn’t a likelihood of a similar ‘pillar’ emerging for Rahul Gandhi in the near future — none from his ‘core group’ at least.
‘Can’t imagine anyone assuming that role’
Senior Congress leader and former external affairs minister Salman Khurshid said he can’t see anyone in the party “evolving to assume such a role again”.
“I can’t imagine it happening, certainly not in our lifetime. Ahmed bhai had an organic evolution, I can’t see that evolution happening again,” Khurshid said.
“Whenever anyone at the top of an institution goes, it leaves a huge gap… but there are systems by which someone has to fill that position. But Ahmed bhai was as much the system as part of it. How do you replace a system? I shudder to think what will happen now,” he added.
Khurshid, who was a minister both during the UPA-1 and UPA-2 governments, added there are a lot of “talented people in the party”. “But I can’t tell how they will fall into place, only time will tell,” he said.
Congress’ Jammu and Kashmir leader Saifuddin Soz also echoed similar sentiments, saying there isn’t anyone who could take on that role “at the moment.”
“I can’t spot anyone at the moment. Ahmed bhai was a unique person, he was loyal, he did not mince words,” Soz said.
“Rahul has a team of men and women working with him all around, maybe he will spot someone who has the stamina to play that role. Let us see,” added Soz, former member of the Congress Working Committee and ex-minister.
‘Will have to look outside his core group’
Rahul stepped down as the party president last year, as an attempt to take responsibility for the Congress’ debacle in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
However, it is expected that he may soon return as the party president by early next year, with the party’s Central Election Authority expecting to hold the elections to appoint the new party chief before January.
Sanjay Jha, former Congress spokesperson, said assuming Rahul will return as party president, he will have to “look outside his core group” to find someone who can play that role for him.
Jha said Rahul is presently close to four people — Randeep Surjewala, chief Congress spokesperson, K.C. Venugopal, general secretary (organisation), Rajeev Satav, Rajya Sabha MP and party in-charge of Gujarat, and Manickam Tagore, MP and CWC member.
“Ahmed bhai took the biggest decisions on behalf of the party president. So then the role is of a quasi-president, a virtual decision-maker. None of these four people has the wherewithal or the political heft or have demonstrated their ability to assume such criticality,” he added.
“Rajeev Satav was in-charge of Gujarat where we drew a blank, and Randeep Surjewala was in-charge of Bihar, where also we performed poorly. So the message is clear,” Jha said.
ThePrint reached Surjewala, Venugopal and Satav through phone calls and texts, but there was no response till the time of publishing this report. Meanwhile, when ThePrint called Tagore, he declined to comment.
A Congress MP, who didn’t want to be named, told ThePrint: “For someone to assume such a role, they have to bring a diversity of perspective and be plain speakers. His immediate group doesn’t have that, they don’t have a patch on Patel.”
‘May just do away with the role’
Meanwhile, other party leaders said that Rahul may just do away with having a ‘political secretary’ or ‘political adviser’— the role Patel served for Sonia.
“Every leader has their own model of working, their own style. I am not sure if he (Rahul) is looking for a political adviser or secretary, he may just do away with the role when he becomes president,” Sanjay Nirupam, Maharashtra Congress leader and former MP, told ThePrint.
Another name, often associated with Rahul’s core team is that of Koppula Raju, a former bureaucrat, who served as the party’s Scheduled Castes department from 2013 to 2018.
Much like Patel, Raju too has stayed away from the media limelight and is low-profile, but has come to occupy an important position in Rahul’s team from 2018 onward.
However, Raju has never contested any election, unlike Patel who was an 8-time MP from Gujarat — thrice from the Lok Sabha and five times from the Rajya Sabha.
“Rahul has some important people playing important roles in his team, Venugopal and Raju are some. Will he want to carve out a separate role of a political adviser? I am not sure,” Nirupam said.
Congress leader Udit Raj said “no one can be earmarked for that role” just now.
“No one is indispensable on this earth. I will also come and go, but the party will remain. His (Patel’s) position can’t be filled, but who will play that role for Rahul Gandhi is something time will tell. No one can say who has what in the mind, what are the qualities they possess, it is very subjective,” Raj said.
Ajay Kumar Lallu, Congress’ Uttar Pradesh president, said he has “no name in mind for now”. “We are still expressing grief over his (Patel’s) demise. We will have to think over this in some time,” he said.