While his obituaries are still being written, the impact of the death of veteran Congressman Ahmed Patel on the party ~ and especially the leader ~ he served so long and so faithfully will take weeks to unravel.
Mr Patel has departed from the scene at a time when the Congress is being torn apart by internal pressures, a situation characterised as a battle between the old guard and younger leaders but one that is essentially rooted in contrasting approaches to politics.
Mr Patel’s skill lay in managing these contradictions and of affably but deftly warding off challenges to his leader. But his greatest skill lay in being utterly committed to the cause of his party president, who he served for more than two decades, managing both her superintendence of Mr Manmohan Singh’s government and of the decimated party she was forced to run for some of the time after 2014, including now.
And while Mrs Sonia Gandhi was determined not to countenance any challenges to her reign and that of her son in the past six years, it was clear to observers that Mr Patel played the role of a bridge not just between the next rung of leaders and the family but between the mother and son as well.
It was in his performance of these delicate tasks that the Congressman from Gujarat excelled once he concluded that his religion could come in the way of any ambitions he might have nursed of assuming public office in either his home state or on the national stage.
But it would be an overestimation to credit him with skills that he did not possess in the absence of evidence to the contrary. For instance, he may not have had a grand political vision for the party or, beyond a point, the strategic skills to ensure its success at the hustings. But in managing his party’s leaders, and especially in ensuring that any threat they posed to Mrs Gandhi was neutralised, he was a master.
As the Congress enters a decisive phase, Mr Patel’s departure from the scene is bound to alter power equations at the top of the party organisation. Mrs Gandhi had already indicated that her stewardship was interim in nature. The absence of a key lieutenant, especially one who was rumoured to have been a benefactor of the party’s old guard, may now compel her to accept a generational change and hand over the reins.
Her son, who had sought to cast the party organisation in a different mould, may find resistance to his ideas reduce with Mr. Patel’s departure and may even find it possible to come into his own.
Whether or not that will cause a revival in the fortunes of the Congress is in the realm of conjecture.For while Mr Patel offered a steadying hand to the Congress, younger leaders straining at the leash might find themselves energised by the emergence of a new style of politics.