BILASPUR, Chhattisgarh— A near fatal car-crash left Chhattisgarh's first Chief Minister, Ajit Jogi, paralysed from the waist down. Earlier this year, a severe bout of pneumonia left him fighting for his life for 52 days. But with elections around the corner, Ajit Jogi is back and threatening to upset political equations not just in Chhattisgarh, but also nationally.
Once considered a Gandhi-family loyalist, Jogi left the Congress in 2016 to form the Chhattisgarh Janata Congress (Jogi), but still speaks fondly of Sonia Gandhi. On Sunday, he declared an three-way alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Communist Party of India, striking what could prove to be a decisive blow against the possibility of a Congress-led opposition united against the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party.
His wife, in the meantime, remains in the Congress.
The new alliance, Jogi insists, will pave a way for a larger non-BJP-non-Congress alliance which will stop PM Modi led BJP's juggernaut.
Are you going to be the king or kingmaker this election?
I will be the King. My coalition will get a majority. I am pretty sure about it.
But this election is also being perceived as a do or die battle for you.
It has always been a do or die battle. In politics when you win, you are at the top of everything and when you lose nobody looks at you. You can say that perhaps this is the last election I am contesting as a leader of a party. Perhaps somebody else might have to take over my party because I am growing old and I also have this handicap of a big accident so I don't want to continue for long. But this election I am leading and I am absolutely sure we will form the government.
You are the star campaigner of this alliance (with BSP) but you also spent two months in hospital earlier this year. Would your health condition allow you to campaign extensively?
I didn't say that I am not keeping well. For 52 days, I was really fighting for my life but I recovered and now I am absolutely fine, working as I used to. I am already traveling extensively by helicopter, by trains, by car, sitting on my wheelchair. I am going everywhere I used to go earlier.
What prompted this alliance with the BSP? You had already started the campaign and declared candidates.
Number one, we are like-minded parties.
Number two, in Chhattisgarh Mayawati's vote bank and my vote bank overlaps. The Scheduled Caste vote of Chhattisgarh is with me and a part of them also votes for BSP and here total Scheduled Caste population is around 20 percent now. I thought if 20 percent gets consolidated then nobody can prevent us from forming the government and that is why I moved in that direction and she also agreed.
Congress was negotiating with her and they had reached a point where they would have perhaps clinched a deal but when I approached her and told her that we are like minded and we have the same vote bank and that we both will be cutting into each other's' vote bank so why not we get together. And she generously agreed and it just took us only three hours to clinch a deal.
What about tribal votes?
My vote bank extends beyond the Scheduled Castes. I was talking about overlapping vote bank between her and me is Scheduled Caste, besides them, I have tribals with me and backward castes as well.
I have people supporting me from all walks of life. My support is broad-based and especially the tribals of the plains, who are now educated, support me. The tribals in the hills of Bastar and Sarguja are not educated enough to understand intricacies of politics. Sometimes they vote on emotions and temptations so one can't be very sure of that vote bank. Like last time the Bastar people wanted Congress to win and it won 8 out of 12 seats. This time one can't say as of now who they will support but they are not going to support the BJP. They are fed up (with BJP). Fifteen years (of BJP rule) are more than enough for them.
There has been a perception and allegations that your alliance with BSP was propped up by the BJP to damage Congress.
How does the BJP benefit from it?
They have always been saying that I am close to Raman Singh and there is a deal between him and me. But I will just cite two three things.
I am contesting against him from Rajnandgoan. If we were together, this would not have happened. He instituted a false case of murder against me. I had nothing to do with it.
Fortunately, the judiciary acted rapidly. In the evening, they arrested me formally and in the morning my advocate went to the court and I was discharged but the fact remains that he instigated a case of murder against me. If we were friends this would not have happened.
When I was coming out of a temple during a campaign for a by-election, I was accused of robbery. In that case, fortunately, when I raised hue and cry, the police didn't have the guts to charge sheet me but the fact remains that Raman Singh instigated a false case of robbery against me.
My son was also charged with a conspiracy to murder and he remained in jail for months because of some problems with his bail. But I had to suffer that pain of my son being in jail on a false charge. Later on, when the lower court acquitted him honourably, the Raman Singh government filed an appeal in the High Court. If he was my friend he would not have done that. The High Court also acquitted my son so Raman Singh filed an appeal in the Supreme Court. I am just citing these examples to make it abundantly clear that he (Raman Singh) has a smiling face, in public he acts as if we are very close friends but that's not the case.
Is this alliance only for assembly election or will continue till Lok Sabha?
This alliance is not only an alliance in Chhattisgarh. It's a beginning for an alliance for 2019 Lok Sabha. We getting together means that she [Mayawati] has preferred not to align with the Congress and she has preferred to align with me, which indicates that there is an alliance in the offing of all non-Congress non-BJP regional powerful parties.
We are all convinced that the juggernaut of the BJP can be stopped only by the regional parties because the BJP acts on the sentiment of polarization and that can be countered only by the local sentiment, the regional sentiment — The Bengali sentiment, the Odiya sentiment, the Chhattisgarhi sentiment and that is why we think that the national parties like the Congress will never able to stop the BJP.
We are all convinced that the juggernaut of the BJP can be stopped only by the regional parties
The last general election of 2014 is an example. Mamata Banerjee in Bengal, Navin Patnaik in Odisha, Jayalalithaa in Tamilnadu stopped him [Modi] but wherever the Congress was there, they couldn't, they were finished. This is a very important alliance, to begin with. Now just the two of us are together but in the days to come, I am sure all the regional parties will get together.
You declared tickets very early and then went in an alliance with the BSP. Many people are leaving your party and joining the Congress now.
No, I have not changed the tickets of those who were already allotted tickets. Just two or three exceptions which Mayawatiji was very keen for. I had to (change tickets) and there I agree that those who were given ticket by me are not feeling good about it.
One of them has already left me and to other two, I have been able to explain. Yesterday our candidate from Jashpur joined the BJP but every election you witness this Ayaram Gayaram thing. There are several people who want to join us from BJP and Congress. It's not that people are leaving me, there are more people who have joined us. After all, I started with zero and now I have around 15 lakh members. Where have they come from? They have come from Congress, BJP and other parties. Actually, I have gained. Those who left us are very few.
What about the family? Your wife is still in Congress and there are chances that she might be given Congress ticket this election.
I can't really defend this. It's my failure that we have not been able to convince her. Three of us [Jogi, his son Amit and daughter-in-law Rucha] are one side and she is still not with us politically.
We had been married for more than 40 years but there had never been any serious differences. Somehow, she feels closer to Mrs. Gandhi. Mrs. Gandhi has always been very good to her as she was good to me. She says that it's not a question of political party, it's a question of her personal relationship with Mrs.Gandhi.
She says she is not a political person and she was never into politics. Circumstances forced her to get into politics and she says you are a politician and I go by my sentiments and my sentiments tell me that I should not leave her ([Sonia Gandhi] till she is there. Almost every day I, my son and my daughter-in-law try and talk to her but somehow, she says three of you are in politics but she is not.
She was forced into politics. She was aaa professor in a medical college. She has written books, textbooks for medical college, so she is really not a politician. She is more of a social worker and in her constituency also she can't differentiate between a BJP fellow and a Congress fellow. Whosoever comes to her is welcome. She is a different kind of person. It is difficult to explain but she is, I think, still in Congress. And let us see if the Congress accepts her and gives her a ticket or not.
There seems to be a negative campaign against your son.
There is a saying in Chhattisgarhi if I can't deal with you I will choose to harm your son, so that is what is happening. They can't find any fault with me morally, politically or socially and I give 24 hours to people so they have nothing against me. He is relatively new in politics. This was his first term in assembly so it's easier to make him a target, lodge cases against him, create a perception that he is negative in his approach, that he is hot-tempered. All that is a campaign of calumny against him because they can't find anything against me or my wife. So, they have chosen him and he is the target after all they had to target someone from the family.
This election is against the BJP or the Congress?
Against the BJP, the Congress is almost marginalized in this state. Because as you know they don't have a leader here.
They have formed a seven-member presidium to lead and they don't have a face or a history of struggle. For 15 years, they had been in opposition but they have not opposed the Raman Singh government in an effective manner on any issue.
They take up an issue and in three days it dies down. They have not acted as a good and effective opposition and that is why people don't see them as an alternative to the BJP. On the other hand, they want to replace BJP, 15 years of anti-incumbency, misrule, the officialdom, three four officials ruling the state and corruption at every level. Perhaps, the highest level of corruption in the country is in Chhattisgarh and the Congress is not questioning them so it free for all.
You never said a word against Gandhi family even after parting ways with the Congress. Rahul Gandhi called Amit when you were in the hospital. Are you keeping your options open for a possible post-poll scenario?
The cordial relationship is there and I made that promise when I left. I said to Mrs. Gandhi that I have reasons to leave, that I want to form a regional party. I think the national party cannot defeat the BJP so I will form a regional party but we have been very close as families.
In personal matters, she was always there. She stood for two hours when I fell ill until I regained consciousness. She almost chose the girl for my son's marriage. There are hundreds of examples like this.
But I am very sure that we are forming the government. Our coalition is going to expand in days to come and I don't perceive of any exigency where we will have to choose between the Congress and the BJP or chose one of them or support one of them. I am getting a very good response during the campaign.