Ajit Jogi — as DM and CM — traversed his arc on his own terms

In India, it is widely accepted that the pivot of public administration comprises three institutions — Prime Minister, Chief Minister and District Magistrate. Ajit Jogi, who died on May 29, holds the unique record of being the only person to have occupied both the offices of the CM and DM.

Born in 1946 in the Marwahi district of Chhattisgarh to a humble schoolteacher, Jogi went on to graduate as a gold medallist in mechanical engineering from Maulana Azad College of Technology (REC Bhopal). This was 1968 — the same year he qualified for the Indian Police Service and, two years later, he made it to the IAS and joined the MP cadre.

He also holds a record of sorts for working as a collector for 12 years. His true calling, however, was politics. Thanks to Arjun Singh, his mentor, he dropped all pretensions and joined the Congress in 1986 with a direct nomination to the Rajya Sabha. After two terms in the Rajya Sabha (1986 to 1998), Jogi got elected to the Lok Sabha in 1998 from Raigarh.The creation of the new state of Chhattisgarh in November 2000 brought an unexpected windfall for Jogi’s political trajectory. He was anointed the CM — much to the chagrin of the political heavyweights within the Congress. It was his remarkable political canniness that soon gave him full control of the party in the state: He ensured that politics in the Congress for the next two decades would revolve around him.

Jogi was an astute administrator as well. Unfortunately, his developmental achievements are often overshadowed by the allegations of high-handedness, victimisation and other extraneous controversies. But he did lay a solid foundation for a fledgeling state. He gave priority to infrastructure and fiscal management and shut down all the PSUs, including the State Road Transport Corporation. No wonder, in the 2003 Vidhan Sabha elections, unlike in MP, Bijli, Sadak, Pani was a non-issue in Chhattisgarh.

There are stories galore of his no-nonsense attitude towards the bureaucracy. In one such incident, in 2001 — as the state faced a drought — the cabinet was meeting at the CM House late in the evening to finalise a drought relief package when the Relief Commissioner mentioned a letter on the same subject that had arrived from the Government of India earlier that day. A punctilious Jogi insisted that he wanted to see it before finalising the package. The officer was sent off at 10:30 pm to dig out the letter from the desk of the under secretary to whom it was marked. Only when the officer returned with the letter, at 11:30 pm, that Jogi was satisfied.

In another meeting, some money was expected from the RBI for drought relief. At the beginning of the meeting, Jogi chided two IAS officers for not going to Mumbai to follow up with the RBI. An hour later, he was livid when he saw the two officers still sitting in the meeting. He forced them to leave for the airport and board the next flight to Mumbai. When he wanted something done, he wanted it done, no questions asked.

Politically, he claimed tribal status and positioned himself as a champion of the tribals. He was particularly seen as the leader of the Satnamis (followers of Guru Ghasidas, a 19th-century leader). Since 2003, when Jogi first contested the Assembly election from Marwahi, he never lost the seat: In 2018, he won by more than 46,000 votes. His sway over the Satnami voters in Chhattisgarh was almost absolute. He held veto power in these 25 seats.

He was a master election strategist. In the 2014 general elections, he was accused of “namesake” politics — voters found 11 Chandu Lal Sahus in the fray from the Mahasamund seat. Wily Jogi almost won that election, losing by a mere 133 votes to the real Chandu Lal Sahu of the BJP, while the other “Sahus” shaved off over 63,000 votes!

His long stint as a collector, though, proved to be his strength and, perhaps, his greatest weakness too. He ran the state the only way he knew — like a collector. He was used to unbridled control and authority as a DM, and he tried to exercise the same as the CM. Friends and foes alike felt that a spirit of accommodation would have helped Jogi. If Jogi had worked as a secretary in the mantralaya, he would have learnt to collaborate, to agree to disagree, to let go and, sometimes, to lose gracefully.

I shared a unique relationship with him because my father knew him well and we shared the same alma mater. When he wanted something done, he would unabashedly invoke three reasons for me to do the job. One, “you are my bhatija”; two, “I am your senior”; and three, “When Jogi becomes CM, Aman Singh will be his secretary.” It was to Jogi’s credit that he took few such calls — and only for the public good.

Jogi was a visionary, a man in a hurry, a man who knew how to get things done and someone who thrived on controversies. As a bureaucrat or politician, on his feet or in his wheelchair, Jogi never let the moment define him, he defined the moment.