Politics

The Ever-Changing Gears of Ajit Jogi

If either the Congress or the BJP gets a clear majority, the Jogi factor will be over in Chhattisgarh politics.

Ajit Pramod Kumar Jogi has had the privilege of rubbing shoulders with several powerful and wise men, but the bureaucrat-turned-politician is not known to have learnt much from them. Having spent countless hours – often as audience or just a hanger-on – Ajit Jogi is expected to reflect at least a bit of the somewhat legendary patience and dexterity of Pranab Mukherjee, Arjun Singh, P.V. Narasimha Rao, P. Shiv Shankar and Ahmad Patel.

He, in fact, reflects quite the opposite.

Collector crosses over to Congress

A sharp man who comes from a modest background, Jogi has always been going at breakneck speed to beat his contemporaries. The hunger to prove himself the brightest had numerous hours of glory when a young Satnami man first cleared the Indian Police Service (IPS) and then the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). He showed his prowess as a tough administrator as collector of Indore, catching Rajiv Gandhi’s attention, no less. Ultimately, he left the IAS to enter the Rajya Sabha in 1986. This was a time when Rajiv was facing hostile opposition despite having a mammoth majority in the parliament. Jogi, like Surendra Singh Ahluwalia, Suresh Pachauri, Ratnakar Pandey, Baba Mishra and the rest, became a member of Rajiv’s (in)famous ‘shouting brigade’ with a Bull Terrier-like rage against V.P. Singh & Co.

Also read: Ajit Jogi’s Uncertain Future in Congress Marks a Shift Away from Pro-Adivasi Politics in Chhattisgarh

Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in May 1991 saw many loyalists losing out in the Congress’s political labyrinth that saw a stoic Sonia Gandhi, a maverick Narasimha Rao consolidating his hold over the party organisation and the Prime Minister’s Office, a trio of Arjun Singh, Makhan Lal Fotedar and Vincent George plotting against Rao and a large number of confused chief ministers of Congress-ruled states and CWC members, among others.

The period between 1993 and 1996 saw Jogi at his best. His day would begin with paying visits to Vincent George, Arjun Singh and a galaxy of other leaders, and end at the court of pipe-smoking Pranab Mukherjee, whose contempt towards Arjun and partiality towards Narasimha Rao were always visible. The former bureaucrat desisted from carrying tales or throwing his lot with any particular faction of the Congress. So, when his friends Aslam Sher Khan, Dileep Singh Bhuria, Rangarajan Kumaramangalam and others sat on a dharna at the Surajkund AICC, Jogi saved himself from the humiliation of getting his testicles pressed by Haryana cops. It so happened that when ‘Gandhian’ Sher Khan, Bhuria and the rest tried to march towards the podium where Rao was sitting, some Sewa Dal volunteers intercepted them. Congress folklore has it that those were Haryana policemen masquerading as Congress Sewa Dal volunteers. Without a lathi or fraternal affection, they pressed agitators’ testicles as per their drill to tame the marchers.

Finally, when Arjun Singh resigned and floated a breakaway Tiwari Congress with N.D. Tiwari, Jogi was missing from the ranks. By 1995, Jogi had struck friendship with Bhuvnesh Chaturvedi, a low-key minister in Rao’s PMO. Unlike Ahluwalia and Aslam Sher Khan, Jogi could not become a junior minister in the Rao government, but he became a frequent visitor to 7, Race Course road, hearing out an otherwise reticent Narasimha Rao.

The 1996 defeat of the Congress saw Jogi changing gears swiftly. He was in the company of Priyaranjan Dasmunshi, Prithviraj Chavan and others giving a marching order to Rao as leader of the Congress Party in the parliament. Jogi was a regular fixture at the place of newly appointed AICC chief Sitaram Kesri, who disliked both Arjun and Digvijaya Singh. For Kesri, there were only three types of Congressmen – forward, backward and ‘Har’-vard (those foreign educated politicians who pushed Congress towards har or defeat). This was also a golden period of sorts for Jogi as he succeeded in creating a deep wedge between Kesri and Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijaya Singh. However, before Kesri could orchestrate Digvijaya’s ouster and his replacement with Subhash Yadav, he was himself evicted as AICC chief. Jogi wasted no time in doing a 180 degree turn towards V. George, M.L. Fotedar and the rest.

Eventful but uninspiring tenure

Destiny smiled at him in November 2000, when NDA Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee decided to create three new states of Jharkhand, Uttrakhand and Chhattisgarh. A rootless wonder who was yet to win either Lok Sabha or state assembly polls, Jogi did not have support of even half a dozen Congress MLAs in Chhattisgarh, but he positioned himself as chief minister of the tribal state even though his claim of being a tribal was disputed an a case was ongoing in the court. Sonia acted naïve; her antipathy towards Vidya Charan Shukla was grounded on Shukla betraying Indira Gandhi after her 1977 defeat and raising Bofors’ bogey during the Rao era when he was parliamentary affairs minister. Little did she realise that years later, Jogi would play a Shukla on her. Jogi was chosen as leader of Congress legislature despite not having much support. It was alleged that many religious heads belonging to Christian faith had lobbied for him, a charge stoutly denied by Sonia as well as the Congress party then.

Jogi’s anointment as chief minister of Chhattisgarh in Raipur on November 1, 2000 was eventful. The talk of the town was that Prabha Rau and Ghulam Nabi Azad, who were central AICC observers, wanted to watch the film Mission Kashmir to while away some time in Raipur. Instead, they were treated to an impromptu fistfight between supporters of Shukla and Digvijaya Singh. The chief minister of undivided Madhya Pradesh was on ground receiving kicks and punches barely hours before the vast tracks of fertile land and mines were to slip out of his kingdom. At the time of swearing in, capital Raipur bore eerie silence, as if mourning over local Shukla’s failure to get his due.

Ajit Jogi with BSP supremo Mayawati during the announcement of a poll alliance in Lucknow. Credit: PTI

Jogi’s tenure as chief minister was far from impressive. While he was seen by many as an autocrat, he could not even get a new state capital that he had announced amid a lot of fanfare. He ran the state administration with the help of handpicked bureaucrats. He was given a free hand, as if Sonia had shut her eyes and ears. Jogi’s son rose in Sanjay Gandhi manner, calling shots and emerging as an extra-constitutional authority.

By the time his three-year tenure ended and the November 2003 state assembly polls were called, a supremely confident Jogi was plotting against his own party nominees so that he would get a bare working majority and deprive the ‘high command’ (Sonia) any chance to replace him with another chief minister. The final outcome had a different story, but Jogi was unrelenting. He reportedly informed the state governor that a faction of newly elected MLAs were prepared to switch sides. The governor, a former army lieutenant general, schooled in propriety and ethics, informally alerted 10, Janpath and Jogi was given a stern word to accept the mandate. The behind-the-scene swift action prevented a major showdown between the otherwise genial prime minister Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi.

Tragedy struck when Jogi’s speeding car rammed into a tree, but months and years of hospitalisation did not affect Jogi’s determination to stay relevant. Sonia’s own sense of disillusionment over some unsavoury incidents and Rahul’s indifference peeled the mask of loyalty and Jogi moved to Raipur, threatening to teach the Congress a lesson. However, in so doing, his family has maintained ties with the Congress and with the BSP, and an informal line with the Raman Singh-led BJP regime in Chhattisgarh.

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If wishes were horses, Ajit Jogi would have fancied himself as a jockey. With the first round of polling in Chhattisgarh barely 12 days away, the former chief minister wants to a V. Kumaraswamy in Raipur. However, unlike the Karnataka Janata Dal (S) chief minister, Jogi is open to the idea of getting support from either the Congress or the BJP.

Can he still be kingmaker?

Chances of Jogi being lucky in December 2019 are slim. However, like November 1, 2000, Jogi may not have support of many MLAs on December 11, 2018, but if poll verdict throws up a hung house, he would try his luck, rather hard.

His chances against the Congress are based on a scenario that Chhattisgarh verdict will throw a hung house. With the Congress, he would do tough bargain including a claim on the chief minister’s post if his alliance with the BSP and the CPI gets 10 assembly seats. His idea of a tie-up with the BSP is to get into a ‘king-maker’ position and queer the pitch for the Congress. Mayawati too wants a weak Congress for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The concept of Mahagathbandan is a mirage as non-NDA parties like the BSP and the Trinamool Congress do not want a Rahul-led Congress to win Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

He might back the BJP if it falls short of a few seats, he would back the BJP. If either the Congress or the BJP gets a clear majority, the Jogi factor would end in state politics. Going by the poll campaign build-up and the history of the newly carved tribal state of Chhattisgarh, chances of a hung house and a third front getting a substantial number of assembly seats in the house of 90 are little.

Jogi’s sure-shot hold is over Satnami Harijans, who matter in four or five assembly seats. Together with the BSP and the CPI, he is fancying 10 seats, which is unlikely. Chhattisgarh, or for that matter its parent state Madhya Pradesh, has no history of coalition politics. In 2013, the Congress’s vote percentage was barely 7% less than the BJP’s despite a tottering UPA regime and the emergence of Narendra Modi as harbinger of hope.

Also read: In Blow to Congress, BSP Picks Ajit Jogi’s CJC as Ally for Chhattisgarh Polls

A latest incidence gives a glimpse of the life and times of Ajit Jogi. A few months ago, Jogi had announced in bravado that he would take on chief minister Raman Singh from Rajnandgaon. Closer to filing nomination, Jogi changed track, declaring that he would not be contesting assembly polls. However, before the statement could sink it, a busload of loyalists arrived from Marwahi. They pleaded and begged with Jogi, under the watchful eyes of TV news cameras, to file his papers from Marwahi and let them campaign for him. A somewhat helpless Jogi was seen accepting the ‘will of the people’ as per the democratic norms. The audacity to take on chief minister Raman vanished in thin air.

The Rajnandgaon flipflop illustrates that Jogi has not emerged as astute politician. He is in a hurry and somehow wants to grab power even if it means going with the BJP.

Rasheed Kidwai is a noted political commentator and talking head on Indian tv news channels. He is a visiting fellow at the ORF and the views expressed here are his own.