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Ajit Jogi played in Congress’ big-boy league, convinced each camp he was their ‘utility’ man

Ajit Jogi liked telling tales about ‘Diggy raja’, whom he loved to hate, but couldn't achieve much in MP politics. Luck finally smiled on him with Chhattisgarh's creation in 2000.

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Ajit Pramod Kumar Jogi’s life journey went from a poverty-stricken tribal childhood to IPS, IAS and then to the Congress party. It was a meteoric rise.

But his political life was full of contradictions, and one of unrealised potential.

Ajit Jogi was instinctively anti-Brahminical, yet he chose Arjun Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, and P.V. Narasimha Rao as his ‘role’ models, all masters in Machiavellian politics and the Congress’ famed palace intrigue. Jogi wasn’t a palace-manoeuverer but tried very hard to play to the Congress camps. He tried to play in the Congress’ big-boy league. In spite of his powerful mentors, he had to fend for himself until the end. He fancied himself as a mass leader, which he was not.

At the height of his political career, Ajit Jogi met with an accident that reduced his chances of a comeback. In the caste matrix, he had to struggle between a tribal and a Satnami harijan for most of his political life. Even after earning several reprieves from courts, Chhattisgarh Police registered an FIR against him in September 2019 for allegedly possessing a fake caste certificate.

Also read: BJP banking on one leader to win Chhattisgarh — it’s actually Ajit Jogi

Loyal to everyone

Ajit Jogi was a man in a hurry from the beginning. His administrative brilliance was in full demonstration when he was the collector of Indore from 1981 to 1985. Madhya Pradesh Congress dynamics in the late 1980s were so intricate that then prime minister and Congress president Rajiv Gandhi picked ‘outsider’ Jogi instead of considering nominees recommended by Arjun Singh, Shukla brothers, P.C. Sethi, Madhavrao Scindia and a galaxy of other leaders from that era.

Jogi joined Rajiv Gandhi’s ‘shouting brigade’ in the Rajya Sabha. This was the time the former prime minister was facing opposition onslaught over the Bofors scandal. Along with Ratnakar Pandey, Suresh Pachauri, S.P. ‘Baba’ Mishra, and S.S. Ahluwalia, Jogi too developed a penchant for pouncing upon anyone daring to speak against Rajiv or Sonia Gandhi. After Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991, the group tried hard to prevail upon Sonia to take over the Congress.

Rajiv’s assassination was a setback for Ajit Jogi. That’s when he began to court Arjun Singh, Narasimha Rao, Pranab Mukherjee, and Sonia Gandhi’s private secretary Vincent George. Jogi had successfully convinced each one of them that they had his complete loyalty. Jogi selectively used information to project himself as a ‘utility’ man. When Arjun Singh had a tiff with Rao, he viewed Jogi as his ‘mole’ in Rao camp. And Rao’s crisis managers relied on Jogi for a similar role in Arjun Singh camp.

Ajit Jogi’s brush with this power-play made him more ambitious. By this time, he had become All India Congress Committee (AICC) spokesperson with daily and easy access to media, which used to troop in every day at 4 pm at 24, Akbar Road. Jogi was a popular spokesman, always measured with words. Reporters saw a different man in his daily off-the-record briefings conducted inside Congress headquarters and later at his Shahjahan Road residence. The passport to these briefings was strictly based on confidentiality and on the individual reporter’s ability to reproduce the ‘Jogi version’.

When Narasimha Rao got phased out, Ajit Jogi became a regular at new AICC chief Sitaram Kesri’s 7, Purana Qila residence. After several attempts, Jogi finally found a sympathetic ear. This rattled Congress leader and Madhya Pradesh’s then chief minister Digvijaya Singh.

Jogi liked telling tales about ‘Diggy raja’ whom he loved to hate, and often mixed facts, fiction, fantasy. A reporter once narrated Jogi’s tales to Digvijaya Singh, which led to a bitter confrontation between the two leaders that was audible to a select few media representatives. Jogi put Digvijaya’s landline call on speaker phone and one could hear the chief minister reminding him, “Congress office ki pavitrata, garima toh na kharab kar (do not violate the sanctity of the Congress office).”

Jogi, Dileep Singh Bhuria (who had been the Ratlam MP since 1980 and eventually shifted to the BJP), Aslam Sher Khan (hockey Olympian) and others tried to find a foothold in Madhya Pradesh politics but Digvijaya Singh was firm. When two groups of ruling Congress clashed in Bhopal, Jogi accused Digvijaya camp of unleashing, ‘suar maar bomb’, which is used by nomadic tribes for hunting wild pigs.

Also read: Mayawati-Jogi alliance is the joker in the Chhattisgarh poll pack

A new state, a new life

Luck finally smiled on Ajit Jogi when National Democratic Alliance (NDA) leader and then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced the creation of new states of Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh in 2000. Jogi may not have had the support of a dozen Congress MLAs, but a number of Christian clergy, tribal leaders, and thinkers reportedly lined up for him. Chhattisgarh veteran Vidya Charan Shukla thought himself to be a favourite but Sonia Gandhi was disinclined to oblige Shukla on grounds of betraying Indira Gandhi after the 1977 Lok Sabha election debacle and raising the Bofors bogey during Rao’s time when he was the parliamentary affairs minister.

A crucial meeting was held at 10, Janpath to decide who will be Chhattisgarh’s first chief minister. A handful of reporters saw Congress leaders coming out and Jogi bending to touch Digvijaya Singh’s feet. By the time Jogi reached next door, at 24, Akbar Road, he had another spin: “We have been friends and colleagues. So whenever we meet, we try to rattle each other just like school college boys do.”

Years later, Digvijaya recalled at Bhopal’s Indian Coffee House that Jogi had promised ‘life-long’ gratitude to him. “It ended by the time Jogi swearing-in took place in Raipur and I returned to Bhopal,” Digvijaya had said with a trademark chuckle.

The creation of Chhattisgarh was painful for Digvijaya Singh. Apart from the fact that a large chunk of Madhya Pradesh was bifurcated and his detractor Jogi had become at par with him as chief minister of a Congress-ruled state, Digvijaya had to face some blows too.

I was in Raipur on 1 November 2000 when Ghulam Nabi Azad, who was AICC observer, gave a quote that was published in The Telegraph: “When we finalised the CLP leader’s name in the forenoon we thought our task was over. We were planning to watch Mission Kashmir till we realised we had a more important task — Mission Chhattisgarh.” There was even a fistfight between supporters of V.C. Shukla and Digvijaya Singh, resulting in the chief minister receiving some kicks and punches.

Jogi’s tenure as Chhattisgarh chief minister was lacklustre and by December 2003, the Congress was out of power. In April 2004, Jogi, during his Lok Sabha campaign for Mahasamund seat against Shukla, suffered a near fatal accident. He survived but for the rest of his life, he had to use a wheelchair.

During the 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign, Narendra Modi even lampooned Jogi’s disability, calling him an “apahij (disabled)”. “He compared the Congress leadership with a Bollywood movie where a family introduced their beautiful daughter while finalising a marriage proposal but later switched sisters by bringing in the one with disability (Jogi) for the marriage ceremony,” reported The New Indian Express.

But Ajit Jogi was determined to stage a comeback after his stem cell therapy (having suffered a heart attack in 2005). He aligned with Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) after having floated a party of his own, Janta Congress Chhattisgarh. His exit from the Congress paved the way for a spectacular electoral victory for the grand old party. Jogi never reconciled to it.

The author is a visiting fellow at ORF and working on a book on Islam and Indian Nationalism. Views are personal.

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  1. With Ajit Jogi’s death, Congress can hopefully win the 70th Seat in Chhattisgarh Assembly.

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