I haven't been given my due, says Ajit Jogi
Ajit Jogi was in the Indian Administrative Service before he was persuaded to join politics by the late Rajiv Gandhi. He proved to be an adept learner, rose quickly in the party hierarchy and was appointed Chhattisgarh chief minister after the formation of the state in 2000.
His luck ran out when his government was ousted by the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2003. He courted controversy when he was accused of "bribing BJP legislators" in an attempt to form a Congress government. He was suspended for two months. Though the Congress leadership revoked his suspension, Jogi has not been able to return to the political centrestage.
Despite being bound to a wheel chair after he sustained serious injuries in an accident, Jogi has not given up his attempts to retain his numero uno position in Chhattisgarh. He has been accused of indulging in factionalism in the state Congress unit and mounting pressure on the party to give him a key role in the state.
Jogi sent out a warning to the leadership recently when he ensured the defeat of a Congress candidate in a municipal byelection. He was in the eye of a storm when the BJP accused him of conspiring in the recent deadly Naxal attack on a Congress convoy in Bastar.
In this exclusive interview, Jogi talks to Anita Katyal about the impact of the Maoist attack, the year-end Chhattisgarh assembly elections, and his own role in state affairs.
The recent Naxal attack dealt a blow to your party. How's the situation now?
The attack was indeed a tragedy. The entire frontline leadership of the Congress party in Chhattisgarh was wiped out, creating a void which is very difficult to fill.
Take the case of Mahendra Karma, a tribal leader... It took years to groom him. Then there was veteran leader Vidya Charan Shukla, the Pradesh Congress Committee chief... These are just two names but in addition to them, there were at least 20 other state Congress leaders killed in that ambush, who had a very bright future. It has taken a lot of time for the party to absorb this shock... Most workers are yet to come out of it.
The Naxal problem has never been so bad. They are striking at will. They have never attacked anybody on the national highway before and their morale is really high after the latest incident.
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Image: Ajit Jogi
Photographs: Kamal Kishore/Reuters
'Congress must encash the sympathy after Naxal strike'
Do you think the Congress will be able to regroup after this attack and be ready for the year-end assembly elections?
I admit the incident was shocking but there's another aspect to it... It has created a lot of sympathy for the Congress. But we should be able to encash it. If we succeed, then there's no stopping us. But the Congress lost the recent two municipal by-elections held in Bastar and Baghbhera in the same area where the Maoist ambush took place. The Congress even lost its deposit. The party committed the folly of not calling me for the campaign.
If we continue to make such blunders, we will end up hurting ourselves. History shows that whenever a sympathy wave is generated, it overrides everything else. That sympathy wave can be created. We have to project that we were the targets of the Naxal attack and that the state government failed to provide the necessary security. This is the issue which should be emphasised.
Charges were levelled against you after the attack. It was alleged that you had a hand in this incident.
I have taken the matter to court. I have filed a criminal defamation case against BJP leaders who accused me of having a hand in this incident. I did not opt for a civil suit as I don't want money from them. I am asking for their punishment.
I am certain that I can prove the charges against them. Ever since I filed the cases against them, they have not said a word on this matter.
Did you have to explain yourself to your party?
No, I didn't have to offer any explanations to my party. Before making such accusations you must have a good understanding of the ground situation in Chhattisgarh. First, you have to be friendly with the Naxals to be able to persuade them to go in for such an ambush. Second, you must have a good equation with Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh to ensure that he doesn't deploy the necessary forces to counter this attack.
In politics, we don't get each other killed. It does not happen like this in India. Political rivals have respect for each other.
You must understand that this meeting was held 450 km away from Bastar and being in a wheelchair it was not possible for me to travel by road. I had, therefore, told Mahendra Karma and the others that I will only attend the meeting if I can travel by chopper.
I went by chopper, attended the meeting, after which we went to the rest-house where we chatted amicably, joking with each other. I could not even stay for lunch since I had to fly back before dark. But the others went by road and they were ambushed. The BJP immediately started rumour-mongering about how I had managed to escape.
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Image: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi meet with victims injured in the Maoist ambush, at a hospital in Raipur
'I am somebody in Delhi'
You are the senior-most leader in Chhattisgarh today but even after the local leadership was wiped out, you were not named PCC chief. Is it true that the new PCC has not met you so far?
Somebody had to be appointed as you cannot have a vacuum. Charan Das Mahant has been appointed as a caretaker or acting PCC chief. Yes, it is a fact that Mahant has not met me. We have not had a one-to-one meeting. Whenever a PCC was appointed in the past, they always called on me, but the present PCC chief has not thought it necessary to do so.
Would you agree that you have not been given your due by the Congress?
That's true, for the last 10 years I have not been given any post in the state. But I was not alone. Motilal Vora and VC Shukla, the other senior leaders from the state, were also kept out with the objective of grooming local leaders.
All three of us have held no post in the state, but I am somebody in Delhi. I am a member of the Congress Working Committee, the manifesto committee, head of the party's SC/ST cell and on several other committees. I have been given importance at the all-India level. But a negative explanation could be given by our detractors that I have been sidelined.
Are you hurt when it is said that you have been sidelined?
I am not hurt by this talk. What matters to me is my relationship with Congress president Sonia Gandhi which has remained constant. She made me chief minister when I was nothing and when I met with an accident, she spent two hours with my wife. We have always considered ourselves as part of the family.
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Image: The present PCC chief didn't think it was important to meet me, says Jogi
'I share a formal relation with Rahul Gandhi'
How would you describe your relationship with Rahul Gandhi?
I'll be frank. Although I have a good relationship with Rahul Gandhi, I don't think I will ever share the same relationship I had with his father and then with his mother. There's a generation gap.
But, he's our leader and I will work under him. The relationship here is more formal while I could say anything to Rajivji.
This time I decided not to contest the Lok Sabha election. My supporters in my constituency insisted on it. They said that after contesting elections here I left them in the lurch. I promised them this time I will not leave them.
But it's not up to me to decide. I'll do what I am asked to do by the party leadership. I have not asked for anything. But I would like to be a mainstream politician and a mainstream politician is one who has a position in Delhi or in the state.
You are often accused of fuelling factionalism in Chhattisgarh Congress. It is also said that you are pressurising the party into giving you a lead role in the state?
I have never subscribed to the idea of factionalism in any state unit. In the Congress it is not possible to have groups as it is a one-person party. But what happens is that there is competition in the states, there is one-upmanship as each person tries to prove himself to be a bigger leader than the other.
It's the same in my state. I have enjoyed the reputation of being a "maximum" leader -- nobody comes close to me as far as following and mass contact are concerned. This creates the impression that I am charting my own course.
I have always said that this competition lasts till the distribution of tickets as each leader tries to get maximum tickets for his followers. But once the tickets are given, we work together.
If I was mounting pressure on the party leadership I would be moving around meeting people. I have been in Delhi for three days but I have not met any party leader.
There are murmurs in the Congress that you are planning to form a separate party because you are unhappy at being sidelined?
People are free to say anything. I am not a politician who has risen from the ranks. I am a lateral entrant into politics. I was brought into politics by Rajiv Gandhi. I can't leave the Gandhis. I owe everything to them, can't think of politics without them. They made me what I am today but the day they tell I am not needed, I will leave.
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Image: There's a generation gap between me and Rahul, says Jogi
'Modi will not count for anything in Chhattisgarh'
But is it also true that you have been approached by other political parties?
I was suspended by the Congress for two months some years ago -- that's the time several parties approached me to join them, but I did not do so. If I did not leave then, I have no reason to do so now.
But is it also true that you have good relations with the Bahujan Samaj Party and you being pressured by your supporters to leave?
Why only BSP, I have good relations with leaders from all parties. (Rashtriya Janata Dal chief) Lalu Prasad, (Samajwadi Party supremo) Mulayam Singh Yadav and (Janata Dal-United leader) Sharad Yadav. No offers have come from any top leaders. They know of my loyalty to the Gandhis and the Congress. All kinds of suggestions are being made by my supporters, but I ask them to have patience.
Will Narendra Modi make any impact in the coming Chhattisgarh elections?
Modi will not count for anything in Chhattisgarh. Unlike other states, Chhattisgarh does not have a large urban middle class which is taken up by Modi. Nobody knows him here -- the BJP will have to bring in crowds for his meetings, people will not come on their own.
Modi only appeals to the non-secular, pro-Hindutva sections and his only attempt will be to polarise the polity. As far as the BJP in Chhattisgarh is concerned, Raman Singh is the only face they have.
Can the Congress take on Raman Singh? After all, he has won two assembly elections.
Raman Singh has managed the media very well but on the ground, he has not done anything. He can be pinned down on the issue of corruption, especially the exploitation of the state's rich natural resources.
Image: Modi only appeals to the non-secular, pro-Hindutva sections, says Jogi
Photographs: Amit Dave/Reuters