There are many things that Ajit Pramod Jogi — the first Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh — who passed away in Raipur on Friday, will be remembered for. However, it will be difficult to decide which of his achievements or attributes outshone the others in a rich life that began in a forest village in Achanakmar in 1946 and ended on 29 May, 2020. Jogi, 74, has left behind a political legacy that belongs uniquely to Chhattisgarh.
Jogi passed away as the founder and president of his own party, the Janata Congress Chhattisgarh (JCC) that he formed after breaking away from the Congress in 2016, but it was the latter where he honed his political skills.
Always a brilliant man, Jogi was spotted by the then-prime minister Rajiv Gandhi while officiating as the collector of Indore in then-undivided Madhya Pradesh. Officials who worked with him remember that a telephone call at 2.30 am from Rajiv asking Jogi to get ready for Rajya Sabha membership, changed his course of destiny from a bureaucrat to a politician.
Jogi quit the IAS in 1985 and joined the Congress, rising to national prominence as a favourite of Rajiv Gandhi. An engineering graduate from the then-regional engineering college — Maulana Azad College of Technology (now a National Institute of Technology) in Bhopal, Jogi had a stint as a lecturer in Government Engineering College (also an NIT), Raipur. He soon displayed his brilliance by clearing the IPS in 1968 and eventually getting selected for the IAS in 1970.
It was, perhaps, the same brilliance that helped him survive the tough waters within the Congress party long after his mentor was gone.
Madhya Pradesh, at that time, was the largest state of the country in terms of area. Its political power lay in the western part of the state where the capital Bhopal was located. The eastern part, now a separate state called Chhattisgarh (formed on 1 November, 2000), was the richest region of India in terms of mineral wealth, rice production and was also the major source of power (electricity), yet was always second to the western part when it came to distribution of funds, schemes and benefits within the state.
Bhopal, Indore and Gwalior, in the western part of the state, always had precedence over Raipur and Bilaspur in the Chhattisgarh region, despite the latter being no less in industrial or historical importance.
That was surprising, considering that the region had given the undivided Madhya Pradesh its first chief minister in Pandit Ravi Shankar Shukla and more chief ministers later on such as his son Shyama Charan Shukla and Motilal Vora. Shyama Charan’s brother Vidya Charan Shukla (both popularly called Shukla brothers) rose to national prominence as a minister in Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet.
Around the turn of the last millennium, when the cry for separate statehood for Chhattisgarh rose to a crescendo (along with the same for Uttarakhand and Jharkhand), Madhya Pradesh politics was dominated by political royals such as the Shukla brothers, the then-chief minister Digvijaya Singh, Madhav Rao Scindia, Motilal Vora and Kamal Nath.
Yet, when Chhattisgarh was born, it was Ajit Jogi who checkmated the legacy faces and emerged as Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s choice to be the new state’s first chief minister.
What endeared him to the state’s population, comprising a big percentage of tribals, was his son-of-the-soil ethos. He came from a village in the deep forests of Achanakmar in Chhattisgarh (in the state’s Mungeli district) and had risen in life by sheer hard work. It is a well-known fact that despite hailing from a backward community, Jogi cleared his IPS and IAS exams through general category.
It was the power enjoyed by bureaucrats, that he was a witness to both in his village and while studying in Bhopal that inspired Jogi to become an IAS officer.
Most importantly, as chief minister, Jogi addressed the people of the state in Chhattisgarhi dialect (of Hindi), which made him immensely popular among locals. Perhaps it was due to my knowledge of Chhattisgarhi, that I got several opportunities to interact with him while reporting in Raipur.
A formally trained bureaucrat, Jogi emerged as an able administrator when serving as Chhattisgarh’s first chief minister (2000-2003). He was known for his sharp and elephantine memory; he never had to refer to notes while rattling off complex data in his speeches, official meetings or conferences. He always had a variety of figures at his fingertips.
His stint in bureaucracy helped him in controlling the system as the chief minister. His administration continues to be remembered in the state for controlling political hooliganism in the capital city of Raipur; incidentally, he had also served as Raipur collector during his time in the IAS.
Tribals and their issues were close to Jogi’s heart. As chief minister, he travelled many times to the state’s tribal belt Bastar and had a large following. During his last visit to Maoist-hotbed Bastar ahead of the Chitrakot bye-election in 2019, Jogi said that Bastar should be designated as up-rajdhani (sub-capital) and a mini cabinet should be stationed there, so that policymakers could focus on tribal development and eradication of Naxalism in Chhattisgarh.
During my last interview with him in November 2018, ahead of the state Assembly election in which his JCC party fought in an alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Jogi said that the Maoist problem couldn’t be tackled by bullets alone.
“The Maoist problem can be resolved through dialogue, by involving them in the political process. That is what happened in Nepal. We need socio-economic development; we need to give them education and employment and orient them to a good lifestyle.”
However he had his fair share of controversies. His political career was marred by controversy related to his caste status. Though he claimed himself to be a tribal, the BJP challenged the same, especially during the 2003 Assembly election in the state in which Jogi was toppled by the BJP’s Raman Singh, who went on to rule for the next 15 years. The court cases related to Jogi’s caste status continued to remain unresolved at the time of his death.
Despite his close proximity to the Gandhi family, the Congress party initiated disciplinary proceedings against Jogi in 2016 over charges of tarnishing the party’s image and he was expelled along with his son Amit for six years. He rebelled against the party’s top leadership and formed his own party, the JCC.
Many Congress old timers in Chhattisgarh recalled that despite being confined to a wheelchair after a car accident in 2004, Jogi remained dedicated to public life.
Though he was sidelined by the party for years after losing to BJP CM Raman Singh, Jogi was back in focus after nearly the entire top leadership of Chhattisgarh Congress was wiped out in a Maoist attack at Jhiram Ghati in Bastar in 2013.
Chhattisgarh and its capital Raipur will remember Jogi – one of the few leaders from the state with high national recall – for steering the two into the 21st century with an independent identity beyond the confines of Madhya Pradesh.