His threat to float a new party reflects the larger malaise afflicting the Congress, which appears unlikely to be able to prop up new regional leaderships –something the BJP has done with great success.
In no other state are the local Congress committees as faction-ridden as they are in Chhattisgarh and Punjab. While Amarinder Singh is still holding the reins against the state committee’s rank and file in Punjab, mostly because of his widespread popularity, his counterpart in Chhattisgarh, Ajit Jogi, seems to be losing his sheen. Jogi’s call to float a new party at a time when Rahul Gandhi looks set to become the party president seems, at best, a desperate attempt to throw his weight around in opposition to an inimical party machinery – a move perceived as a bargaining chip.
For many years now, Jogi has been sidelined by the Chhattisgarh Congress from the internal decision-making processes of the party. So great is his alienation that prominent leaders of the state Congress do not even hesitate to criticise him publicly, leaving Jogi perpetually livid. Often the party machinery dismisses him as autocratic, self-serving, corrupt and as someone who would not blink before conspiring against the party’s interests. The anti-Jogi camp, a majority within the state Congress, has played an immense role in spreading this perception of Jogi in the state over the last ten years.
Complaints against Jogi
In 2013, when Maoists eliminated the entire top brass of the state Congress in Jiram Valley, Jogi was alleged to have conspired with the extremists. The National Investigation Agency is still probing the alleged role of a few Congress leaders in connection with the case. Similarly, in 2014, he was caught on tape while ‘fixing’ a by-poll in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate in southern Chhattisgarh’s Antagarh constituency. Jogi was also accused of working against the Congress’ interests in the last two assembly polls. Some Congress leaders in the state claim that he fielded dummy candidates against official Congress contestants in all the seats where his preferences were ignored by the party.
In these series of controversies, his son Amit Jogi played an able accomplice. Amit, too, has earned an image of an undemocratic, impatient and haughty man – characteristics that party leaders say are born out of a strong sense of privilege. Unfortunately for Amit, he had to bear the brunt of his father’s political adventurism. Amit was jailed for almost ten months as an accused in the murder of Nationalist Congress Party leader Ramavtar Jaggi in 2003 – a case in which he was later acquitted. In another case in 2003 filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation, he was accused of planning a sting against the late Chhattisgarh BJP leader Dilip Singh Judeo for political mileage. Judeo, the then union minister for environment, was caught accepting bribes from a journalist being used as a decoy, thinking the latter wanted his help to acquire a mining project. More recently, he was expelled from the Congress party for six years in connection with the ‘fixing scandal’ of the 2014 by-elections.
The party’s rank and file see Jogi as running a dynastic camp in the name of politics. Leaders have continually complained about his anti-party activities to the party high command. Yet, the Congress leadership in Delhi, despite warning Jogi many times, have chosen not to take any disciplinary action against him.
Jogi, on the other hand, has not budged. He was the first chief minister of the state created in 2000, and is still the biggest face of the Chhattisgarh Congress, exactly like Amarinder in Punjab. He has used his considerable influence among Adivasis and a sizeable population of Satnamis, a scheduled caste community in the state, to his advantage. Despite the fact that he has not been projected as the chief ministerial candidate by the party since 2008, he has always thought of himself as one. His assertions against the party and his unscrupulous adventures, in this context, are perceived as a political war that he has waged in the state, which until now has only helped the BJP despite a strong anti-incumbency sentiment against the current Raman Singh government.
The ambiguity around Jogi
In this tug-of-war, political observers in the state believe that the party high command’s decision to expel Amit in January this year reflects the ambiguity that prevails in the national Congress leadership vis-à-vis Jogi. ‘What to do with him’ seems to be the most perplexing question the Congress has had to face in Chhattisgarh. “The leadership has been warning him against his anti-party activities for a long time now. His son’s expulsion was perceived as cracking the last whip. There has been no direct disciplinary action against him. It is clear that the national leadership is uncertain about his strength and weaknesses in the state. After all, until the emergence of Rahul Gandhi, he has been a staunch loyalist of the Gandhi family,” said an old-time Congress leader of Chhattisgarh, who did not want to be named.
Clearly, the party knows that Jogi is still the most commanding leader in the state, someone who can compete against Raman’s political stature in the state. Organisationally, the BJP has only risen in strength and it has done so primarily at the cost of the Congress, which, in the last 15 years, has come to depend heavily on the gradually brewing negative sentiment against the BJP’s almost 14-year-long rule. In terms of members and sympathisers, it is strong only in certain pockets but remains the principal, if weak, opposition elsewhere. A combination of these factors has forced the Congress high command to retain Jogi despite dissensions. The state Congress leaders have been trying to convince the national leadership that Jogi is no more the indispensable force he used to be. “He only harms the party’s prospects. The party lost in nine out of ten Satnami strongholds in the last election. If he goes out, the party will gain some respect in the middle- and upper-class circles, which have generally hated him,” Chhattisgarh Congress leader Shailesh Nitin Trivedi, a one-time close aide of Jogi and now a bitter critic, told The Wire.
Jogi’s pro-Adivasi politics
However, many in the state believe that Jogi’s supposed weakness that Trivedi mentions is actually his political muscle. He has successfully cultivated an image of being a pro-poor, anti-rich leader. Jogi, a scheduled tribe politician, emerged as a major leader in the Adivasi-majority Chhattisgarh. His political pitch has always been pro-Adivasi. He has taken care to support tribal issues and has taken strong positions against mining and displacement in the state. He has even gone hammer and tongs against the Congress leader and infamous Salwa Judum founder Mahendra Karma, and has made disparaging remarks against the party for sheltering Karma for so long. In the midst of all these controversies, he has taken care to always hold the ruling BJP accountable for people’s distress. Even when he hinted at floating a new party while accusing the state Congress of acting as ‘Team B’ of Raman’s government, his played up the anti-BJP sentiment that is now perceptible on the ground.
In a state like Chhattisgarh where inequality levels are stark, many people look up to a leader like him. “He is seen as arrogant by the middle classes and only because of that the poor and the marginalised, quite spontaneously, view him as a hard task master,” said Praveen Kumar Nayak, a renegade ground-level Congress activist based in Kanker told The Wire.
Realpolitik reflects itself in myriad ways – sometimes in mysterious ways too. In Chhattisgarh, the political battle between Jogi and the Congress state committee has had its repercussions on the way Congress has practiced its politics. Under Jogi, the party tactically projected itself as an Adivasi party in Chhattisgarh. Jogi had already emerged as the most vocal force for a separate state of Chhattisgarh before 2000. After the formation of the state, Jogi tried to cement this perception of the party. The strategy worked as, Adivasis formed around 35% of the state’s population. In a way, Jogi departed from the upper-caste and upper-class politics that the Shukla family – Ravi Shankar Shukla, Shyama Charan Shukla and his son Vidya Charan Shukla – practiced from the Congress’ platform. Jogi’s transition rubbed many in the rank and file of the party the wrong way at the time.
A new party strategy
During this time, Digvijay Singh also emerged as one of Jogi’s biggest rivals. Digvijay, the then chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, opposed the idea of a separate Chhattisgarh while Jogi wanted Adivasi-majority districts to be cut out from that state. Many in the party attribute Jogi’s fall from grace to Digvijay. Ever since Gandhi shot to prominence, Jogi’s stature in the party continuously declined. Jogi has stated on record many times that Digvijay, who is considered a close advisor of the Gandhi scion, has been stoking adverse sentiments against him in the party. Interestingly, Digvijay was one of the first prominent Congress leaders to comment on Jogi’s idea of floating a new party. “Ajit Jogi had sold the Congress candidate Manturam Pawar to the BJP. So it’s good for the Congress that such people are leaving the party,” he told the media while referring to the ‘fixing scandal’.
The Congress party’s loss in three consecutive assembly polls, Jogi’s hot-headedness and consequent dissensions within the party against him were enough reasons for the party high command to look at alternatives. In the last few years, the party has been wrestling with many choices to evolve a new strategy. The party, after struggling with different tactics, has now been sticking to the agenda of creating a new anti-BJP constituency among people belonging to the other backward classes (OBC) over the last few years. The backward classes, though a varied group both in terms of class interests and lifestyle preferences, constitute a little more than 50% of the state’s population – a significant chunk spread mostly over the plains of Chhattisgarh.
However, the internal divisions within them, say for example historical rivalry between Kurmis and Telis, have prevented them to consolidate as an influential identity group. Therefore, their support to political parties is also vary in every election, according to immediate conveniences. The BJP, especially in its third term, has gained an image of a party run by the combined exploitative group of upper-caste Brahmins and Rajputs, who had migrated to Chhattisgarh from Uttar Pradesh at one point of time – Raman being one of them – and Marwaris, traders who had migrated from Rajasthan during the colonial period. A build-up of anti-incumbency around this factor is fuelling meta sub-nationalist talk within various rights-based movements in the state, and OBCs are a significant force driving this. Congress wants to tap this sentiment through identity-based politics.
Digvijay is said to be the mind behind this strategy. The party has been appointing OBC leaders as the presidents of the state unit for a few years now and has generally been projecting one of its OBC leaders as the face. The elevation of leaders like Charan Das Mahant, the Lok Sabha member from Korba in central Chhattisgarh, Nand Kumar Patel who was shot by the Maoists in the Jeeram Valley massacre, the present state-in charge B.K. Hariprasad, or the current state unit president and the Kurmi leader Bhupesh Baghel over the last few years is a part of this strategy.
Jogi’s political future
Clearly, Jogi does not figure in the larger scheme of things. By adopting the OBC strategy, Digvijay, political observers say, has not only been successful in sidelining Jogi but has also offered a credible alternative to Adivasi politics in front of the party high command. The bitter feud between Jogi and the state Congress allegedly controlled by Digvijay has transformed the Congress’ political practice. “The party thinks that the OBC strategy can be a good middle ground. We have seen the days when Shuklas famously practiced benevolent feudalism and also when Jogi did his own brand of Adivasi politics. This is a new ground, and perhaps, also long-term,” said the old Congress leader who did not want to be named.
However, the strategy’s relative lack of success has kept the Congress high command uncertain. The Congress has neither grown organisationally not does it have a popular leader equivalent to Raman. The OBCs still remain a volatile group who can swing either way. And this uncertain field allows Jogi to bargain and sometimes threaten. This is not the first time he has made such declarations before the media. Despite the fact that the state committee has tried to convince the leadership that Jogi has failed both politically and electorally many times, he knows he is still the only leader in Congress who holds considerable sway over Adivasi-dominated Bastar and pockets of central Chhattisgarh. In the last assembly elections, the Congress outperformed the BJP in Bastar. In the Satnami belt, another one of Jogi’s strongholds, the Congress lost most seats to the BJP, but many alleged that Jogi had worked against his own party then. If these are all put together, Jogi is influential in at least 30 assembly seats. In a 90-member assembly, this is a significant number. The last two polls were also really close contests, with incredibly low win or loss margins.
“I am not a rebel”
His political adventurism aside, Jogi remains the only voice within the Congress that is pulling it back towards Adivasi issues – an area where Jogi excels. While speaking to NDTV on June 2, the day he hinted at forming his own party, he cleverly disguised his attack on the Congress by lampooning the BJP by saying: “I will first take the blessings of my Adivasi elders first before taking any decision. I am not a rebel. I just want to defeat Raman Singh government’s loot. The Congress leaders are compromised today because of their corrupt dealings. I know they cannot challenge the BJP”.
Whether the party will take any disciplinary action against him, if Jogi will go ahead with his limited strength to form his own party, or if the state leadership will yield some ground to him are all open questions now. “I doubt he will go ahead to form his own party. This is the fourth or fifth time he has shown such tantrums. I just think he wants Amit Jogi back in the party,” Trivedi told The Wire. Perhaps he may not abandon his old loyalties after all. But the ongoing political drama that has unfolded over the last few days reflects the larger malaise that afflicts the Congress party. It doesn’t look like it will, in the near future, manage to prop up new regional leaderships, which the BJP has so successfully done. The ones it has, except Karnataka’s Siddaramaiah, are all enmeshed in their own troubles. Even as Amarinder looks like he may survive until the next election, Jogi’s political demise seems almost certain. The end of his era in Chhattisgarh, however, will toll the death knell on the Congress party’s once lofty ideas about Adivasi empowerment.