George Fernandes after flying in a IAF jet
- Ratnakar Sadasyula
George Fernandes was an iconic politician, rebel, who had all but been forgotten before his death today. From a fiery trade union leader to a rebel during Emergency to Union Minister, George Fernandes travelled a long way in life. George Fernandes has been one of the most iconic political leaders in India. Catholic from Mangalore, who represented Muzaffarpur in Bihar 4 times, an anti-nuke activist who presided over Pokhran 1, a pacifist who went on to become one of the best Defense Ministers ever.
Born in Mangalore, to an insurance executive, George Fernandes was sent for training as a Roman Catholic priest when he was just 16. Frustrated with what he saw as double standards and hypocrisy in the Church, he left the seminary."I was disillusioned, because there was a lot of difference between precept and practice where the Church was concerned"- George Fernandes. He was a rebel right from his teen years, and it was a trait that continued for a long time.
At 19 itself George Fernandes began to organise workers in the road transport, as well as hotels in Mangalore. Moving to Bombay in 1949, Fernandes led a hard life, sleeping on pavements, till he got a job with a newspaper as a proofreader.
Inspired by Ram Manohar Lohia and the veteran union leader Placid D'Mello, Fernandes joined the socialist trade union movement. During the 50s and 60s, Fernandes made a name for himself in Mumbai's trade unions, served prison terms fighting on behalf of workers.
Foray into Politics
Fernandes shot into limelight during the 1967 General elections when he contested against veteran Congressman S.K.Patil. S.K.Patil was one of the major political leaders at that time, fighting on SSP ticket, he humbled him. His defeat of S.K.Patil from Bombay South in 1967, earned him the reputation of being a giant killer. In fact S.K.Patil never recovered from the shock defeat at the hands of George Fernandes and his career went into oblivion.
Another act that would make George Fernandes more famous was the 1974 Railway strike against the pay and working conditions. The Railway strike led by him on May 8, 1974, paralysed the Indian Railways, it remains the only major strike there to date. In fact it is said, that the Railway Strike of 1974, was one of the factors that prompted Indira Gandhi to declare Emergency. This iconic image is of George Fernandes being arrested in Kolkata during the Emergency for Baroda Dynamite Case.
A Rebel during Emergency
During the Emergency, Fernandes was one of those who went underground, had an arrest warrant in his name. The Baroda Dynamite case was hatched between Fernandes, Kirit Bhatt, President of Baroda Journalists Union and Vikram Rao, a TOI staffer. The dynamite was supplied by Viren Shah, MD of Mukand Ltd, who happened to be a friend of George Fernandes. The plan basically was to blow up the dais, at Varanasi, 4 hours before Indira Gandhi was to address a meeting there. Fernandes was however arrested on June 10, 1976, at Kolkata, and shifted to Tihar, however, was not charge-sheeted. In the 1977 elections, Fernandes won from Muzzafarpur LS, by a huge margin of 3 lakh votes.
Fernandes was not from Bihar, nor had he been to Muzaffarpur earlier, but he still won by 3 Lakhs from there in 1977 LS elections. He worked as Industries Minister in Janata Govt, more remembered for his clash with Coke and IBM over FERA violations. Though the Janata Govt fell, and Indira returned back to power in 1980, Fernandes managed to retain his seat in Muzaffarpur. Though he lost from Bangalore South in 1984, Fernandes again won twice from Muzaffarpur in 1989 and 1991. As Minister of Railways in V.P.Singh's Govt, Fernandes was one of the driving forces behind the Konkan Railway. Konkan Railway Corporation was set up in July 1990, when he was Rail Min, and Sreedharan as it's first CMD.
When BJP was still an untouchable party, it was George Fernandes who took the lead in allying with it, through his Samata Party. He allied with the BJP in 1996 at a time when barring Akalis and Shiv Sena, no political party was willing to touch it. The irony is that in the Janata Govt, Fernandes was the most vocal opponent of RSS, he later became one of BJP's most trusted allies.
As Defence Minister
He served as Defense Minister in the NDA Govt, from 1998-2004, his tenure saw both Pokhran-II and Kargil. As Defense Minister, George Fernandes made 18 visits to Siachen, also ensured defence would have a higher allocation in the budget. For someone who earlier supported nuclear disarmament, he openly supported Pokhran-II, gave it all the backing needed. As a Defense Minister, George Fernandes was the one who first called out China as India's main enemy, was then ridiculed for it. But later events proved him true. He is one of the most popular Defense Minister to date. Many in the Army, still regard George Fernandes highly, rate him as one of the best Defense Ministers. He was pretty much a hands-on Minister, travelling to units, talking to the jawans. His 18 trips to Siachen itself is a testimony of that.
After Pokhran Tests with Vajpayee and Kalam
As Defense Minister, Fernandes had a running battle with the Babus. There was this incident, when Babus were delaying the purchase of ice scooters for Siachen. He sent 3 of them to Siachen, to understand the conditions first hand.
Fernandes had to also face fake hit jobs of Tehelka, and sadly, that put an end to his political career too. But that Tehelka hitjobs have worked to an extent, many still believe Fernandes was responsible for that coffin scandal. Notwithstanding the hit jobs on him, he still remains one of the best Defense Ministers in modern India.
Apart from his political activities, Fernandes is also an equally good writer, edited Konkani Yuvak, Dockman, Raithavani(Kannada). He was also a polyglot, fluent in 10 languages- Konkani, Tulu, Kannada, English, Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, Malayalam.
George Fernandes life is fit for a biopic, born Christian, rebel against the Church, later fiery trade union leader, railway strike, going underground during Emergency, his alliance with BJP, Pokhran II, Kargil, etc. Let’s hope someone does attempt it indeed.
(The article is a compilation of tweets by Ratnakar Sadasyula via @GabbarSanghi on George Fernandes)