“I have a very special relationship with the Nehru-Gandhi family. My loyalty is to them,” he says

Outside former Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Ajit Jogi’s residence in Katora Talab, one is greeted with hoardings wishing ‘Amit Bhaiya’. Two vans speed in, plastered with the tagline ‘Jogi Express’. It is late evening, but the place is abuzz with activity. Conspicuous by its absence are symbols of the Congress party.

From the top leadership of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party to bureaucrats; from those sitting at a tea-shop in Bilaspur to newspaper editors, there is a consensus — Mr. Jogi’s relationship with the Congress will shape the outcome of the Assembly polls.

In an exclusive interview to The Hindu, Mr. Jogi dismissed speculation that he was unhappy with the party. “I am a part of the Congress. I have a very special relationship with the Nehru-Gandhi family. My loyalty is to them. My politics began there, and will remain there.”

But his actions are contradictory. In the past few weeks, Mr. Jogi has organised what he calls ‘non-political rallies’ with the message that everyone must be accorded ‘respect and dignity’.

Mr. Jogi’s camp is quick to list out grievances. “There is no balance between responsibility and authority,” said a source. He is the ‘most popular leader’ but is neither the State party chief nor the leader in the House, and has not been given charge as the campaign committee chief. “If this persists, he will campaign only for those close to him, or think of alternatives.”

Mr. Jogi, his camp complains, got to know about the appointment of Charan Das Mahant as State Congress president on television. “Mr. Mahant has not called him once in the last three months.” Mr. Jogi is no longer informed of the party’s programmes. He is not given a seat on the dais when the party’s top leadership visits. His social base of Dalits, particularly Satnamis, finds no space in the party structure. “There was [only] one Scheduled Caste among 199 block committee chiefs.” In a dig at an old rival Digvijay Singh, for ‘misinforming’ the party leadership, the source added, “Chhattisgarh is run from Raghogarh.”

But others puncture holes in this narrative. A State Congress leader, opposed to Mr. Jogi, said that he led the party in 2003 and 2008, and lost both times. “How many times will we repeat the same mistake? He is deeply polarising. If we project him as the Chief Minister, many social groups like the Other Backward Classes — who are almost 45 per cent — will not vote for us,” the leader said.

He pointed out that Mr. Jogi, in his rallies, had asked crowds to back his loyalists. “Covert sabotage is one thing. Overt campaigning against the party, running a parallel exercise, is unacceptable,” he said. The ‘core problem’, he added, was Mr. Jogi’s unwillingness to work in a team, and seek complete power.

After Congress leaders were killed in a Maoist attack on May 25, there was a surge in sympathy for the party. But within two days, there were allegations that Mr. Jogi was behind the killings. He rubbished the charges, but a newspaper editor said, “It shows people are willing to believe the worst about Mr. Jogi. He is known for conspiracies.”

In the past, Mr. Jogi has been accused of bribing local MLAs; has faced corruption allegations; and his son, Amit, has been accused in a murder case. The ‘tainted past’ and continuing stream of allegations has put off the party’s leadership.

But many say Mr. Jogi is fighting not for himself. He is learnt to be upset that Amit Jogi was not appointed office-bearer in the State Congress, and wants to establish him as a successor. The Congress top brass, particularly Rahul Gandhi, is said to be averse.

Asked whether his ‘special relationship’ with Congress president Sonia Gandhi had extended to ties with her son, Mr. Jogi said, “We are close and I am one of the few in the country to have his private number. But there is a generation gap. I do not share the same informal relationship with him that I have with Soniaji or had with his father.”

Was the problem that his son had not been able to develop that relationship with Mr. Gandhi either? “I have never asked Rahulji to talk to my son, take him somewhere. I have never asked the Nehru-Gandhi family for anything. Whatever was given to me was given by them.”

He added that he had given his son the best education, fulfilled his ‘pitradharma’ by getting him married, and was confident that with his ‘capacity, background and legacy’, Amit would develop. But few buy this story of detachment. Amit turned 35 in early August, and is no longer a member of the Indian Youth Congress. This leaves him with no position in the party, and he appears to be itching to chart his own path.

Future

With elections two months away, everyone is waiting to see what the Congress high command does. Will it give Mr. Jogi the leadership that he seeks, or take action against him? What will be his role in ticket distribution? Will Mr. Jogi walk away or put up rebel candidates?

There is speculation that Mr. Jogi has been developing close relations with Third Front outfits, particularly the Chhattisgarh Swabhiman Manch, led by the son of a former BJP MP. The calculation is that he may not have enough to win, but he has enough to damage the Congress and emerge as the swing force.

All of this is making others in the party restive. T.S. Singh Deo, an MLA from Ambikapur, told The Hindu, “The best case is we work together and Mr. Jogi comes along as a senior leader. But the worst case is disaffection and rampant groupism within the party. It is better to split ways than allow that.”

In this maze, the man who is smiling is Chief Minister Raman Singh, thrilled to see the Congress leaders attacking each other instead of focusing on his governance record.