Ajit Jogi, Chhattisgarh’s First Chief Minister, Dies at 74

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As a rising star of the Congress, Ajit Jogi was originally set for a dream run in his political career.

But when he passed away on May 29 at the age of 74, he did not go out in a blaze of glory as he should have as Chhattisgarh’s first chief minister. Instead, Jogi left struggling for political relevance as the leader of a regional outfit, Janta Congress Chhattisgarh, floated by him four years ago after he walked out of the Congress.

Leaving behind a rich legacy of endless controversies he courted both as chief minister and as the Congress party’s perennial rebel leader, Jogi is remembered foremost for his political follies and unfulfilled ambitions.

As a favourite of the Nehru-Gandhi family, Jogi had everything going for him. He had a stint in the Rajya Sabha, held several key positions in the Congress organisation, and was rewarded with the chief minister’s post when the new state of Chhattisgarh was carved out in 2000. It was not an easy decision for Congress president Sonia Gandhi as it meant incurring the wrath of powerful veteran state leaders Motilal Vora, Shyama Charan, and Vidya Charan Shukla, who were the chief contenders for the top post. Jogi was comparatively a newcomer, having joined the Congress in 1986. However, Sonia Gandhi took the risk and chose to repose faith in Jogi.

The former IAS officer, who was persuaded by Rajiv Gandhi to leave the civil service and join politics, settled in well in his new job as chief minister. His administrative experience as a civil servant stood him in good stead in handling the state. At the same time, the political skills he acquired during his years in the Congress helped him handle internal rebellion and counter the political machinations of his party colleagues.

However, Jogi’s luck soon ran out. His overbearing and authoritarian attitude did not go down well with the people. Jogi also found himself in the eye of a storm when his caste status as a tribal was challenged and he was accused of procuring a certificate on a false pretext. The case lingered on for nearly three decades and culminated last year with the cancellation of his certificate and registration of a police case against him.

But Jogi’s weakness for his politically ambitious son Amit proved to be his undoing. Armed with extra-constitutional powers, Amit Jogi ordered around bureaucrats, advised his father on policy issues, and even sat in on key meetings. The final straw was when father and son were implicated in a murder case for which Amit was eventually jailed.

Consequently, the goodwill Jogi enjoyed soon disappeared. This was evident when the Bharatiya Janata Party dethroned him in the 2003 assembly polls. Instead of accepting defeat graciously, Jogi was caught in a sting operation in which he was heard engineering the defection of a group of newly elected BJP legislators. He faced disciplinary action by the party but managed to stage a comeback, and was even inducted into the Congress Working Committee.

While the Congress leadership consistently indulged Jogi, the former chief minister lost no time in raising the banner of revolt when the party attempted to groom other leaders in the state. Jogi pressed for total control of the Chhattisgarh Congress and positions for his son and wife.

This tug of war went on for several years but the party continued to treat him with kid gloves since Jogi had the potential of fanning rebellion in the state unit. For instance, in 2013, a nervous Congress bought peace with Jogi by giving in to his demand for assembly tickets for his son Amit and wife Renu. He was also promised the chief minister’s post had the Congress won. But that was not to be.

The relations reached a breaking point when the party decided to prop up Jogi’s bete noire Bhupesh Baghel and other state leaders. A miffed Jogi then walked out in 2016, floated his own party in the hope that he would hold the key to government formation in case of a hung assembly. But he miscalculated as the Congress won a thumping majority in the 2018 assembly election, which left no scope for a role for Jogi.

On the positive side, Jogi was an excellent spokesperson and a reporter’s delight. He never lost his cool and answered even the most difficult questions with a ready smile. Unlike current party spokespersons, Jogi did not merely read from a prepared statement but also offered perspective and inside information on the party’s thinking on various issues. Jogi was helped by the fact that he had survived the various regime changes in the Congress, managing to win the confidence of successive leaders, starting with Rajiv Gandhi and going on to PV Narasimha Rao, Sitaram Kesari and then Sonia Gandhi.

On the personal front, Jogi showed great fortitude when his young daughter committed suicide in 2000 and he himself was critically injured in a road accident four years later, leaving him paralysed and wheelchair-bound. However, these personal tragedies did not deter Jogi from his regular routine.

Jogi addressed a press briefing barely a few days after his daughter’s tragic end. Similarly, he did not allow his accident to put him down. He continued to plot and plan until the very end with his trademark smile always in place.

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