George Fernandes has passed. After a long illness that placed him very effectively out of the public eye. For many years one hardly heard mention of him, except an occasional ‘do you know how George sahab is’ to which all around would shake their heads in a ‘no’. In fact his death has placed him in a momentary spot of the sun, a reminder of days gone by, the struggle, the agitation, the Kargil war, the illness and then finally what must have been a relief, death.
We entered journalism hearing stories about the legendary socialist leader, the firebrand who faced up to Indira Gandhi during the emergency, who single handedly united and led a railway workers revolution of sorts, and who made the headlines without even trying. He was elected to the Lok Sabha for the first time in 1967, and then stood up to Indira Gandhi and the Emergency that landed him in jail.
In fact it was believed at the time that Fernandes provoked the Emergency. He organised a major strike in 1974 that brought the railways to a standstill. The strike was suppressed by Indira Gandhi, the crackdown sending thousands to jail and leaving many more workers without jobs. It was called off on May 27, 1974. And then shortly after Emergency was declared George Fernandes was sent to jail for allegedly planning to blow up the railway tracks in what became the infamous Baroda Dynamite Case. But such was his popularity that he won the 1977 Parliamentary polls from Muzaffarpur while still in jail.
Born on June 2, 1930 George Fernandes 88 when he died on January 9, 2019, suffering from prolonged Alzheimer’s disease. It was swine flu in his enfeebled state that finally took him away.
A bitter opponent of Indira Gandhi whom he once called a “congenital liar” Fernandes played a key role in the formation of the Janata Dal in the late 1980’s-1990. He was visibly unhappy with the infighting within, and the politics between individual socialist leaders who formed the brunt of the party. One day while some of us scribes were waiting for a meeting of the Janata Dal top leaders to be over, Fernandes came by, asked us why we were waiting and said sarcastically, “There will be no news for you, they are too busy fighting.” He left the building making no move to join the leaders huddled together at the time.
In fact when he quit the Janata Dal former Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh who was the presiding over a disintegrating Janata Dal told close associates, “Nothing has made me more sad and depressed than George Fernandes’ decision to leave.” This was a bit surprising as Fernandes was by then openly critical of Singh, but clearly there still was an understanding and dependency that the latter was referring to in these remarks. Fernandes always felt that Singh was too naive for the ‘hawks’ and there was a fondness and as VP Singh said, an honesty in the relationship that he valued. Besides he was not part of a clique, always taking independent and individualist decisions. Fernandes subsequently formed the Samata party.
Perhaps the decline started after Fernandes became a senior Minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. Age too caught up and conformity replaced the irreverence generally associated with him. Comforts seemed to matter, although in apparel he remained the same, wearing the usual crushed white khadi kurtas as he interacted with the rich and powerful across the world. Hair uncombed, spectacles hanging over his face, Fernandes never really looked the part that South Block conferred on him. And initially did not act the part, breaking imposed barriers to fly to Siachen to meet the soldiers in the freezing cold. He did not do this once but several times during his tenure, and perhaps the feedback he received made it worth his while. It was never clear to us whether it worked to enthuse the soldiers on those treacherous heights but Fernandes seemed to feel it did.
During his long years in politics corruption did not dog him. Instead he was a crusader against corruption but somewhere during the defence ministry stint it seemed to have caught up with the old socialist leader. The Kargil coffin scam broke during his tenure in which the government was found to have incurred a heavy loss of 187000 US dollars in procuring coffins for the soldiers who lose their lives in the Kargil war. The Comptroller and Auditor General confirmed this in its report and although in 2015 the Supreme Court absolved Fernandes and Vajpayee, the controversy did draw blood. The Bangaru Laxman bribe expose also impacted on him to a point where Fernandes had to resign as the Defence Minister.
His later years were confused. A bid to return to the Janata Dal fold through the JD(U) route did not really work for him. His personal life took a turn with his growing illness. He was denied a ticket on grounds of health, and developed differences with old colleague Nitish Kumar. This cost him support among socialists. Eventually Alzheimer’s took hold of what was a dynamic, focused mind and Fernandes disappeared into a world that others could not penetrate. Despite the problems in Delhi he never moved away from his support to what he considered important struggles, be it Kashmir or the Tamil Tigers. His opposition to brands Coca Cola and IBM is legendary, and the corporates felt the pain.
He was accessible and perhaps in the initial days my awe-struck regard for his Emergency exploits was so visible that Fernandes always reserved a smile for me. An encouraging word, a quick frank discussion about politics, a disparaging remark or two against senior political colleagues, and an idealism that he never really let go of. A charming political leader who found and lost his niche along the way.
His death is a release, and will be seen as such by any and every one who had come across this courageous, bold, irascible, opinionated and individualist politician who brought a new verve to Indian politics, and changed the course of history in the 1970s.