A white Duster zips through the dusty fields of Mudgelmal in Naxal territory along the Chhattisgarh-Orissa border before it halts near a stage that has come up overnight. A woman in a saree gets off, estimates the crowd and inspects arrangements. Some 30 minutes later, Congress’s Mahasamund candidate and former chief minister Ajit Jogi alights. Minutes after he begins his speech, she is off to oversee the rally preparation at his next destination.
As Jogi, the face of the Congress in Chhattisgarh, contests what is probably his last election, his daughter-in-law Richa is the one managing the show. She tours the constituency extensively, handles field preparations and deals with aides. Her firsthand information of the forested zone comes handy. She spent her early childhood here, where her father was a forest ranger. “I have not joined politics, I only help him,” Richa insists.
With all opinion polls predicting the Congress’s ouster from the Centre after May 16, a loss in Mahasamund could irreparably damage Jogi’s political career. Party insiders say projecting daughter-in-law Richa could be part of a strategy to galvanise the crowd and partymen. “Mark my words. She is contesting the next election,” says a Jogi aide.
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But Jogi has other aces up his sleeve. His opponent is sitting BJP MP Chandulal Sahu. As many as 10 other Chandu Sahus, all BPL and independent candidates, are also in the fray. Their bank account is nil, assets negligible, and Mahasamund knows that Jogi has put them all up to confuse and split voters. After failing to secure the party’s victory in the last November assembly election that dashed his chief ministerial ambitions, Jogi had announced his retirement from politics and said he would do “bhajan-kirtan (chant hymns) for a year”.
However, within months, he got a Lok Sabha ticket, upsetting Pratibha Pandey, the daughter of late Union minister VC Shukla, who was killed in the May 2013 Darbha attack. This is Jogi’s first election in a decade.
“Jogi has destroyed the party. Yet, Madam Soniaji cannot operate without him. He announces retirement, but they recall him. He has some secret due to which this Delhi family is scared of him,” Modi had recently taunted during a public rally in Chhattisgarh. Jogi won from Mahasamund in 2004, but did not contest in 2009 and instead fielded his wife Renu Jogi from Bilaspur. Renu lost to BJP leader Dilip Singh Judeo. Jogi did not contest the assembly elections last year and partymen say this could be his last poll.
Considering his ability to surprise poll pundits, the BJP is not taking him lightly, but this time, Jogi, who has dominated the Chhattisgarh Congress ever since the state was formed in 2000, is on difficult terrain. The Mahasamund seat is spread across three districts — Mahasamund, Gariyaband and Dhamtari — and of its eight Assembly segments, Congress holds just one. However, the constituency had a similar division of assembly seats in 2004 when Jogi won the elections by over a lakh votes.
Braving the stifling heat, failing health and sun-burns, he travels tirelessly, telling villagers that by giving them subsidised ration, Chief Minister Raman Singh has turned them into lazybones and alcoholics. “Quit alcohol. I quit when I was 16. Had I not, I would not have become a collector and then chief minister,” he tells the crowd in Chhattisgarhi.
Jogi knows the odds are mounting. Son Amit is not very popular in the state Congress and second generation leaders, mostly Jogi’s rivals, have got stronger over the last few months. At present, the BJP has 10 of the 11 Lok Sabha seats in Chhattisgarh and the tally is unlikely to change considerably this year.