OBIT: GEORGE FERNANDES
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.
GEORGE FERNANDES 1930-2019