Ajit Jogi knew how to survive, even in the face of poor judgement and bad luck

In hindsight, he could have lived many lives. But he didn’t.

ByAnand Vardhan
Ajit Jogi knew how to survive, even in the face of poor judgement and bad luck
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In the last two years of the 20th century, a measured voice coming from a lean frame and a placid face was the daily encounter of millions with the Congress party on national television. In his new role as the party’s national spokesperson, Ajit Pramod Kumar Jogi brought austere intelligence to his daily media briefings. Such calm, however, concealed the essence of his important, even tragic, political journey: impetuous ambition and unrealised promise.

For all the shades of power play and intrigue that marked the political career of Chhattisgarh’s first chief minister, Ajit Jogi’s life was a remarkable story of the dogged drive for power ascent and survival amid adversity.

Born in 1946 into a poor family at Pendra (now in Chhattisgarh), Jogi had a tough childhood — a period he once recalled with the memory of walking barefoot to school. He showed enough academic brilliance to earn a gold medal while getting his mechanical engineering degree from Regional Engineering College, Bhopal (now called Maulana Azad National Institute of Technology). He followed it with more defining achievements: cracking the UPSC exam to get selected for the Indian Police Service in 1968, and then reappearing in the exam and getting selected for the Indian Administrative Service in 1970.

By all means, his life as a young IAS officer of the undivided Madhya Pradesh cadre further fuelled his ambition. In the next 15 years, before he quit bureaucracy for a life in politics, Jogi had 14 years of district postings, most of them as the powerful district collector. Widely regarded as a competent administrator, he used his position to keep an eye on the rope tricks of power play in the Madhya Pradesh Congress — then witness to the turf battles among Arjun Singh, brothers Vidya Charan Shukla and Shyama Charan Shukla, Madhavrao Scindia, and the emerging Digvijay Singh. Besides being a keen watcher, Jogi did ingratiate himself to the political stalwarts of the state.

But he had his eyes on bigger prizes.

Even before formally entering politics, Jogi began making his presence felt in the Delhi darbar of Congress politics. Vinod Verma, journalist and the political advisor to the current Chhattisgarh chief minister, shared an interesting anecdote in this regard.

In the early Eighties, when Jogi was the district collector of Raipur while Rajiv Gandhi worked as an Indian Airlines pilot, junior officials were instructed to inform Jogi whenever Rajiv was landing at Raipur airport. Jogi would turn up at the airport with refreshments even before Rajiv’s plane touched down.

At the same time, Jogi’s career as an administrator had its own share of controversies. In its December 22, 2003 issue, news magazine India Today recalled allegations of financial impropriety against him when the Kodar dam was under construction in 1980-81 when Jogi was the collector of Raipur district. Moreover, during his collectorship of Indore district (1981-85), Jogi was accused of stealing the design papers of a defence installation and selling them to the United States’s Central Intelligence Agency. These charges were unsubstantiated and eventually couldn’t be proved.

During this period, there was also an allegation that Jogi, himself a Christian, appropriated the land belonging to the Church of North India to build a colony. But he remained unscathed.

In 1985, Jogii resigned from the IAS to join the Congress party. This move is an important moment to understand the later impatience he showed to move ahead in his political career. The anxiety of compensating for his sacrifice of a comfortable life in an elite job for something bigger in power politics can often explain the political temperament of bureaucrats-turned-politicians. In Jogi’s political innings, this defined the recklessness of ambition, sometimes in unsavoury ways.

To begin with, the Congress accommodated his expectations by giving him two consecutive terms as an MP in Rajya Sabha (1986-1998). However, he suffered a jolt with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, with whom he had cultivated good rapport. He recalibrated his approach to the politics of the Congress high command during the eras of PV Narasimha Rao, Sitaram Kesari, and finally, Sonia Gandhi. His proximity to the Arjun Singh camp in Madhya Pradesh politics was well-known, much to the dislike of the Digvijay Singh camp.

In his initial brush with the popular vote, Jogi had mixed luck. He won the Raigarh Lok Sabha seat in 1998, but lost the Shahdol seat in the 1999 Lok Sabha poll. Meanwhile, he had been entrusted with the party spokesperson role in 1998 — something which gave him national visibility. Along with his poise and clarity in his articulation of the party position, his equal command over Hindi and English came in handy for the party.

However, it was in 2000, when the AB Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance government carved out the new state of Chhattisgarh from Madhya Pradesh, that Jogi’s breakthrough moment arrived. Much to the dismay of the VC Shukla camp, Jogi was able to convince 10 Janpath of his suitability for becoming the first chief minister of Chhattisgarh. His administrative experience in the region, Sonia Gandhi’s lukewarm attitude to his rival VC Shukla’s claims, and Arjun Singh’s support combined to seal it for him. Surprisingly, he was also helped by the fact that Digvijay Singh, then the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, didn’t play spoilsport.

Even after running the state with a free hand over the next three years, and showing intermittent flashes of his administrative grip, Jogi couldn’t consolidate his popular appeal in the state. Rashid Kidwai, who tracked the region’s politics, observed that contrary to what he liked to believe, Jogi wasn’t essentially a mass leader. He had his own set of anxieties about taming possible rivals in state party politics too.

The 2003 Chhattisgarh Assembly poll, in which the Congress lost power to the Bharatiya Janata Party, made this evident. The claims of tribal support, for instance, were electorally refuted as the Congress won only seven out of 34 tribal seats in the 90-member state Assembly. Mahendra Kumar, an influential tribal Congress leader at the time in Chhattisgarh, who was later killed in a Maoist attack in 2013, had even refused to use Jogi’s picture in the party’s campaign in tribal areas.

This was also a time when Jogi’s son, Amit Jogi, got involved in managing his political affairs. The same year, Amit was accused, and later acquitted, of the murder of a Nationalist Congress Party treasurer.

Compounding Jogi’s electoral setback was an audio tape exposé in which Jogi was allegedly heard offering money to the state BJP vice-president to split the party. The episode was partly blamed on his son’s interference in Jogi’s political plans. However, it was clear that Jogi wasn’t shy of trying all Machiavellian tricks to remain afloat in the power politics of Chhattisgarh. The electoral defeat and the audio tape allegations made his rehabilitation a challenging task.

The following year saw a cruel quirk of time: In 2004, while campaigning in Mahasamund constituency for the Lok Sabha poll, Jogi was seriously injured in a car accident, leaving him paralysed below the waist. He was in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, but his ambitions did not drop. A consummate political survivor, he retained the seat again in the 2009 election.

However, the road to political recovery, to his clout of yore, wasn’t going to be easy. After years in the wilderness, it was only after the sudden massacre of major Congress leaders in the 2013 Maoist attack that Jogi tried to recalibrate his strategy. This wasn’t helped by his close defeat by only 133 votes to a BJP candidate in his stronghold of Mahasamund in the 2014 Lok Sabha election.

In 2016, another audio recording emerged, allegedly revealing Jogi’s negotiations for the withdrawal of a Congress candidate’s nomination in the Antagarh Assembly by-election. This proved to be the end of Jogi’s journey with the Congress. Though only his son was sacked and the Congress never formally expelled Jogi, it only reinforced the belief that Jogi had been hobnobbing with the Raman Singh-led BJP government for a long time.

The same year, he floated his regional party, the Janata Congress Chhattisgarh Jogi, or JCCJ. For the 2018 Assembly poll in the state, he formed an alliance with Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party. As a final measure of Jogi’s lost clout in state politics, the JCCJ could win only five seats in the election as the Congress came back to power in the state after 15 years.

Being the survivor that he was, one doesn’t know how Jogi would have responded to this setback in the long run. Till his death, and in one of his longest battles, he persisted with the judicial fight against allegations — and even the findings of a Supreme Court-mandated committee — about his tribal status being fake.

In hindsight, Ajit Jogi could have lived many lives that he didn’t. He was such a repository of possibilities at one point in time. A fierce ambition was, perhaps, consumed by the insecurities of power play and Machiavellian anxieties to overcome them. He always had the knack to survive, and better judgement and more luck would have made him thrive in the power games.

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