IT WAS June 2016, and the skies had opened. There were hundreds out in an open field at Marwahi, the Jogis’ borough in Chhattisgarh, but they stayed, red plastic chairs on top of their heads. As the rain came down, Ajit Jogi, in his now signature wheelchair, announced the formation of his new party. His voice was unclear, but the politician and orator was sharp, as always. “Even the skies have blessed us,” he said. The crowd shouted back: “Jai Chhattisgarh”.
For the 20 years that Chhattisgarh has been in existence, Jogi has been at the centre, in one way or another, for all of them. But on Friday, he breathed his last at the age of 74, after 20 days in hospital and three cardiac arrests.
Born in Bilaspur, Jogi studied mechanical engineering in Bhopal, winning a gold medal, and soon became an IAS officer, going on to become District Collector of Raipur. It was here that he is said to have impressed Rajiv Gandhi, before joining the Congress in 1986. He became a two-time Rajya Sabha member, and fought the Lok Sabha elections from Raigarh in 1998.
Right to the very end, despite a bitter parting with the Congress in 2016, Jogi would fondly recall stories of Rajiv Gandhi, and his own life in the political corridors of Delhi. As a spokesperson, he was a popular face on early Indian news television, and often spoke of times when he and Narendra Modi, who was then a BJP leader, would be picked up together in a car for debates in the studio later.
In 2000, as Chhattisgarh was carved out of Madhya Pradesh, there were many contenders for the post of Chief Minister, such as Vidya Charan Shukla, Motilal Vora and Nand Kumar Patel. But it was Jogi who trumped his party rivals to the post. As Chief Minister, he was seen as an able administrator, and with finance minister Ramchandra Singh Deo, navigated the young state through the tricky early phase. However, Jogi also made enemies quickly and was accused of being heavy handed, leading to the moniker “Jogi raj”. In 2003, when the state went to its first elections, the BJP pipped the Congress to the post.
Even then, Jogi remained central to the state’s politics, and its controversies. He was accused of the murder of NCP leader Ram Avtar Jaggi but acquitted due to lack of sufficient grounds for the charge. Then, in a Lok Sabha election in Mahasamund in 2014, Jogi lost to the BJP’s Chandu Sahu despite the ballot having 11 Chandu Sahus as candidates.
Even as Jogi proudly called himself the only tribal Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh, making his roots the centre of his state politics, that too was questioned. In August 2019, a government panel termed Jogi’s caste certificate as fake, and the case is still in court.
Tragedy was never far away, either. In 2000, his daughter Anusha Jogi committed suicide, and in 2004, he was involved in a car accident that left him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
A Congressman for most of his life, his relationship with the party, especially with other state leaders who were contenders for the Chief Minister’s chair, deteriorated rapidly. Many within the Congress said that when the BJP won three terms, it was because of two powerful factions within the Congress — Jogi and the rest. In 2013, when the state Congress leadership was wiped out in a Maoist attack in Darbha, many from the party laid the blame on Jogi, an accusation he strongly denied.
By the time the 2018 elections came around, Jog was fighting for his political life, contesting from Marwahi, and intending to be kingmaker. It was a brand new party in a bipolar state. But Jogi ensured that his party won five seats. Observers said at the time that had the results had been close, and the BJP not faced a wipeout, he would have been back in the government.
Over the past few months, with deteriorating health, Jogi had remained mostly at home, surrounded by an extensive library, his family that he protected fiercely, and two German Shepherd dogs.
But his interest in the state’s politics was always keen, and he wrote letters often. He questioned the Congress government, with his Chhattisgarh Janata Congress emerging as a louder Opposition in the past year. His last letter was on May 5, to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His request: The use of chartered flights to bring back migrant workers stranded in the lockdown.
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