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Modi claims friend, Patel cries ‘stunt’
Totally deny: Sonia aide

New Delhi, May 2: Congress chief Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary Ahmed Patel has reacted with trepidation to Narendra Modi’s claim of friendship, issuing a strong denial before it creates misgivings in his party.

“I totally deny any closeness to a man who is set to divide India. I will leave public life if Modi can prove I have gone to his house or office since he became chief minister,” Patel said, apparently rattled by Modi’s boast that they were good friends and used to dine at each other’s residences.

“How is a man who doesn’t have friends within his own party claiming friendship with arch-rivals? If he can’t even invite Advaniji for a meal, how can he invite me?” he added.

Patel, one of the country’s most powerful politicians, said Modi’s claims were “ridiculous”. “This is a political stunt to create confusion and create a cloud of doubt in the midst of elections.”

Modi had said in an interview to Doordarshan that “Ahmedbhai” was among his best friends in the Congress. But he added: “Not now, not now. It seems he has a problem with me and keeps his distance from me.”

The interview created much controversy as the reference to Patel and the section in which Modi talked about Priyanka Gandhi Vadra defending Sonia as a daughter and Rahul Gandhi as a sister were not telecast. Modi’s office released the original tapes alleging the interview had been censored and edited, but Doordarshan said the cuts were technical to fit the 30-minute slot.

Although Modi had not termed Priyanka “daughter-like”, unconfirmed versions of the remark provoked her to retort that she was Rajiv Gandhi’s daughter.

Finance minister P. Chidambaram said yesterday: “It is good that Modi described her like a daughter but we are not sure if Priyanka would like to consider someone like Modi as a father-figure.”

An embarrassed BJP clarified that Modi hadn’t showered any fatherly affection on Priyanka.

While the reference to Priyanka was purely rhetorical, the information about Modi’s “friendship” with Patel could have serious political ramifications.

Modi has positioned himself as the worst critic of the Nehru-Gandhi family, coined the “Congress-free India” slogan and never missed an opportunity to spit venom on the family. His diatribes have gone beyond politics and shown traces of personal revulsion.

Besides, the Congress has fought a bitter political battle with Modi in Gujarat after the 2002 riots.

Modi’s claim would have hurt Patel, particularly because there has been a dormant feeling among a section of Congress leaders that the party did not fight the Gujarat chief minister with all its might or pursue legal issues aggressively.

Patel is too mature a leader to maintain any secret friendship with Modi despite being one of Sonia’s closest confidants. Congress leaders close to him claim it is unthinkable that he would visit Modi for lunch or dinner in these circumstances.

Patel said he never had any meeting with Modi in his office or at his residence and had not taken any favour from him since he became chief minister. But he clarified that Modi did come to his place for lunch when he was BJP general secretary in the eighties.

Apart from that, “I never had any one-to-one meeting with Modi before or after the communal riots in Gujarat in 2002”, Patel said.

He added: “When he became chief minister for the first time... he used to call me on phone whenever there was a festival and I used to answer him out of courtesy, to acknowledge that his phone call had come. Beyond that, I do not remember having taken any personal favour from him or having told him anything about my constituency.”

Modi had said in the interview: “We never used to call him Ahmedbhai. For years, we used to call him Babubhai. This is not known outside. For us, Ahmedbhai was Babubhai. But in public life, he has to be given respect. It will not look good if I call him Babubhai. Calling him Mian Sahab is very honourable and I use this honourable word,” he said.

Modi had referred to Patel as Mian Ahmed Patel during the last Assembly election.

There have been instances of key political rivals enjoying excellent personal rapport —former Prime Ministers P.V. Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Chandra Shekhar were great friends.

But Congress leaders in recent times have not been able to develop good relations with BJP counterparts. Pranab Mukherjee had a working relationship with Vajpayee and L.K. Advani but there was no friendship as such. Manmohan Singh had an understanding with Vajpayee but he was initially hesitant to establish a working relationship with Advani in 2004. Sonia managed to build some understanding with leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj after 2009 but that was not friendship.