On June 21, former Chhattisgarh chief minister Ajit Jogi quit the Congress and floated a new party, the Chhattisgarh Janata Congress (Jogi). The occasion was high on symbolism and rhetoric. Jogi launched the party at a rally at Thathapur village near Kawardha, the home turf of Chief Minister Raman Singh. He revealed the name of the party by inviting a class 12 student to write it on a blackboard on the dais.
Hinting at his ambitions to become a regional satrap, he asked the people to take oath in Chhattisgarhi, saying, “From now on, all decisions regarding the state would be taken in Chhattisgarh, not in Delhi.” Jogi, who wields considerable influence over the Satnami scheduled caste community, said he had chosen the day of the launch after consulting a Brahmin astrologer in Andhra Pradesh. He said the party’s motto was ‘Sarvjan hitaya, sarvadharm sukhay [In the interest of all people and for the happiness of all religions]’.
Jogi’s exit has come as a shock to the Congress, which fears that he will eat into its vote bank. A section of Congress leaders, however, is happy. “It is easy to tackle those who create trouble from outside than those who do it from within,” said a leader.
The humiliating defeat of the Congress in the 2003 assembly elections was attributed to Jogi’s tenure as chief minister. Even though his party is projecting the BJP as its main enemy, Congressmen allege that he has a tacit understanding with Raman Singh. “He knows the power of being a spoilsport even if he cannot come back to power on his own,” said a former colleague of Jogi. “In a state that has just 90 seats, he has a chance of being what Madhu Koda was in Jharkhand.” Despite being an independent MLA, Koda was chief minister of Jharkhand from September 2006 to August 2008.
A former bureaucrat, Jogi has courted controversy throughout his political career and has built a reputation as a divisive leader known for obdurate ways. When he was CM, the BJP ran a campaign against him, calling him a “dictator”. “His bureaucratic mind often overrides his political life,” said Kaushal Sharma, a veteran political analyst. “His ‘my way or the highway’ attitude has led him from one controversy to another.”
In the run-up to the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, Jogi met with an accident that left him paralysed below the waist. He won the election riding on a sympathy wave. Jogi, now 70, moves around in a motorised wheelchair and lives in a custom-built, three-room annexe of Sagon Bungalow, his residence in Raipur.
He said he had sought permission from Congress president Sonia Gandhi to form a new party. For its part, the Congress in Chhattisgarh declared that it is relieved at Jogi’s exit. “His departure will not cause any harm to the party,” said party general secretary Shailesh Nitin Trivedi. “Instead, it will have many advantages, as he had created a lot of negativism inside the organisation.”
A former Jogi supporter, he said Jogi formed his party “with the help of Raman Singh to help Raman Singh”. “Because of Jogi’s negative image, we lost support of the upper castes and tribals,” said Trivedi. “We lost dozens of tribal seats in the Surguja and Bastar region when he was chief minister. Brahmins and other upper caste people, who were solidly behind the Congress, moved towards the BJP because of him.”
Jogi’s is the 16th regional party registered in Chhattisgarh. In 2003, former Congress leader V.C. Shukla formed the state unit of the Nationalist Congress Party, which got about 7 per cent votes. Since then Congress has not returned to power.
“Jogi’s new party will cost the Congress dear,” said Ramesh Nayyar, former chairman of the Chhattisgarh Hindi Granth Academy. “He still has mass appeal among scheduled caste voters. He has a veiled understanding with the government to inflict major injuries on his old party. The whole episode has made the ruling BJP happy. But it remains to be seen how effective Jogi would be when the polls are held [in December 2018].”
Jogi said his party would form the government in 2018 and that his focus would be on selecting those who knew Chhattisgarhi into government service.
“Chhattisgarh has nearly 12 per cent of scheduled castes, mainly Satnamis,” said Nayyar. “This vote bank has been loyal to Jogi, though the BSP [Bahujan Samaj Party] has made inroads. If this section remains with Jogi, the new party could become a kingmaker.”
Sensing the threat, the Congress has decided to fight Jogi head on. The day he launched his party, the Congress held a massive rally at Marwahi, Jogi’s home turf. Said former Congress minister Satyanarayan Sharma: “The Congress is a mammoth organisation where people come and go. In my 50 years in politics, I have seen people going out and coming back. Our leadership is wise enough to tackle the situation.”
There are, however, Congressmen who still support Jogi. Said Congress MLA R.K. Rai: “It is because of the obstinate behaviour of state Congress chief Bhupesh Baghel that Jogi had to leave the Congress. I will continue to remain in the Congress and raise issues.” Jogi’s wife, Renu, who is deputy leader of opposition in the assembly, has also chosen to remain in the Congress.
The BJP, which had always wanted a divided opposition, is happy that Jogi is out of the Congress. But the party has denied that Jogi is helping it. “All these rumours of Jogi helping us are baseless,” said party joint general secretary Soudan Singh. “We defeated him when he was in the Congress. We will defeat him again.”