When I first met Ge­orge Fer­nan­des in 1984 in Ben­galuru, he was al­ready a na­tional hero. In the pre­vi­ous decade, he had built his rep­u­ta­tion first as a fear­less trade union leader who could bring the coun­try’s rail­ways to a halt. Then, as a fiery op­po­nent of the Emer­gency even will­ing to re­sort to vi­o­lence to chal­lenge the es­tab­lish­ment. And, fi­nally, as the cham­pion of so­cial­ism by boot­ing out Coca Cola and IBM when he was in­dus­tries min­is­ter in the short-lived Janata gov­ern­ment.

Ge­orge was al­ways where the ac­tion was. Ex­cept that in his home state Kar­nataka, while he was revered, he was never re­garded as a true lo­cal. He grew up in coastal Man­ga­lore (ad­ja­cent to my home district Kodagu). He ini­tially wanted to be a priest and even en­tered a sem­i­nary, but gave it up soon after, dis­il­lu­sioned by its prac­tices. There­after, he left for Mum­bai, where he earned his spurs as a union leader and then cat­a­pulted him­self into the na­tional reck­on­ing.

He was con­test­ing an elec­tion in his home state for the first time—from the Ban­ga­lore North con­stituency—when I cov­ered his cam­paign as an in­dia to­day cor­re­spon­dent. He was up against great odds as the elec­tion was be­ing held soon after the as­sas­si­na­tion of Indira Gandhi and the sym­pa­thy wave for the Congress headed by Ra­jiv Gandhi was ev­i­dent. But Ge­orge, ever the fighter, re­mained un­daunted. I re­call him crit­i­cis­ing Ra­jiv for build­ing swim­ming pools for the Asiad games while the rest of the coun­try, in­clud­ing Ban­ga­lore, faced a wa­ter short­age. He lost the elec­tion and though he be­came a mem­ber of the Lok Sabha nine times, it was never from Kar­nataka. That didn’t bother Ge­orge—he was never parochial and fought and won most of his elec­toral bat­tles from Bi­har.

Five years later, I met him when he had be­come the Union min­is­ter for rail­ways in the V.P. Singh gov­ern­ment. He was his feisty self, his wavy hair askew, as he spoke pas­sion­ately of the need to re­form the rail­ways. Though cred­ited for hav­ing sanc­tioned the Konkan Rail­way net­work that con­nected Mum­bai to Goa and Man­ga­lore, he didn’t get much of a chance to make a mark be­cause the V.P. Singh gov­ern­ment col­lapsed soon after. Ge­orge then set about build­ing the Sa­mata Party with com­pa­tri­ots Sharad Ya­dav and Ni­tish Ku­mar after break­ing away from the Janata Dal.

It was when he was de­fence min­is­ter dur­ing the Atal Bi­hari Va­j­payee gov­ern­ment be­tween 1998 and 2004 that he truly came into his own. Al­ways at the cen­tre of a storm, Ge­orge also ex­hib­ited a puz­zling du­al­ity that was a hall­mark of his che­quered ca­reer. Hav­ing op­posed the 1974 nu­clear ex­plo­sion or­dered by Indira Gandhi, fa­mously say­ing that “with­out the nec­es­sary eco­nomic in­fra­struc­ture, all talk of a bomb can just be so much bom­bast”, he en­dorsed the 1998 tests Va­j­payee con­ducted. “When I found that other nu­clear weapon coun­tries were un­will­ing to give up their own ca­pa­bil­ity, I de­cided we must have them,” he told me at that time. Ge­orge didn’t do him­self proud ei­ther when he failed to con­demn the bru­tal killing of Chris­tian mis­sion­ary Gra­ham Stu­art Staines in Orissa in 1999.

Con­tro­versy re­mained Ge­orge’s con­stant com­pan­ion through­out his life. Soon after the nu­clear tests, he was in­volved in an un­seemly bat­tle with then naval chief Ad­mi­ral Vishnu Bhag­wat and had him sacked for in­sub­or­di­na­tion. Va­j­payee’s coali­tion gov­ern­ment sank after its al­liance part­ner, the AIADMK, pulled out in protest over the sack­ing. The 1999 Kargil War saw Va­j­payee re­turn to power in the next gen­eral elec­tion and Ge­orge was back as de­fence min­is­ter. But, in 2001, he had to re­sign when al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion im­pli­cated the de­fence min­istry and Par­lia­ment came to a stand­still. Ge­orge stepped down and when I asked him how he saw the fu­ture, he said, “I have al­ways fought against in­jus­tice in all forms and will con­tinue to do so.” Within months, Va­j­payee re­in­stated him as de­fence min­is­ter. After 2004, he found him­self out of gov­ern­ment but con­tin­ued to cham­pion causes of all kinds till first ill­ness and then death took him gen­tly into the night. It would ex­tin­guish an ex­tra­or­di­nary per­son­al­ity but not his con­tri­bu­tion as a fiery and ir­re­press­ible so­cial­ist leader who left a per­ma­nent stamp on In­dian polity.


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