The poster boy for the post-Emergency Janata Party government, the fiery orator who spewed venom and fire against Indira Gandhi, the maverick politician who remained a typical jholawala trade union leader even after he became a Union Minister, and the no-nonsense convener of the National Demorcatic Alliance (NDA) government that Atal Bihari Vajpayee headed, George Fernandes, 88, died on January 29 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s and a life in oblivion.
Fernandes, who is best-remembered as Defence Minister in Vajpayee’s government, having overseen the Pokhran nuclear tests and the Kargil war, was bedridden for the last many years. His long, glorious public life, however, was mired in unwholesome personal and political controversies towards the end of his life.
Shortly before the 2004 general election, his name was associated with what is now called the “coffin-gate” scam in which the opposition parties accused him of paying unreasonably exorbitant amounts of money to purchase coffins for transporting the bodies of soldiers who had died in the Kargil war. Although he was exonerated by a commission of inquiry, the charges scarred his image beyond repair. His name was also dragged into a controversy over kickbacks in defence deals in the first Tehleka expose during his stint as Defence Minister. He was personally not found to be associated with any of these scams, but he was said to have been so pained by the charges that he withdrew from public life thereafter.
One of the most prominent leaders of the socialist movement in the 1970s, George Fernandes became a household name when he successfully organised a nationwide railway strike in 1974 which crippled the then Indira Gandhi government. The massive mobilisation at that time, say political experts, totally rattled Indira Gandhi and also contributed towards her notorious imposition of Emergency in 1975. George Fernandes was arrested during the Emergency for what was dubbed the “Baroda Dynamite Conspiracy”, allegedly to blow up government establishments and railway tracks. He contested the 1977 Lok Sabha election from jail and won the Muzaffarpur parliamentary constituency in Bihar by a landslide majority.
George Fernandes became a Minister in the Janata Party government led by Morarji Desai. One of his prominent acts at the time, still fresh in public memory, was to force the exit of Coca-Cola, which had refused to dilute its stake in the Indian associate and reveal its secret formula. It was this move that gave birth to the desi version of Coke, called 77, named after the year in which the government came to power. This was perhaps the first time in independent India that a soft drink was launched by the Prime minister of the country, during the annual trade fair at Pragati Maidan in New Delhi.
Double Seven, however, could not satisfy the Indian consumer and despite the government’s aggressive backing lost out to its competitor Thums Up, which was also launched around the same time as Double Seven. Coke returned two decades later and today happily coexists with Thums Up.
Apart from the Defence Ministry, Fernandes held several ministerial portfolios, including communications, industry and railways, in the Vajpayee-led government, besides acting as the convener of the NDA.
Born in 1930, Fernandes was training to become a Roman Catholic priest, but was drawn by trade union politics in his early years and entered public life as a trade union leader.
Unfortunately, his public stint came to an inglorious end after the Coffin-gate and Tehelka exposes. The last one heard of him was when he was seriously ill and a bitter feud had broken out between his long-time partner and friend, Jaya Jaitley, and his wife, Laila Kabir, whom he had left long ago. Since he had never divorced Laila, she came back to take his custody along with their son when he was bedridden and had lost his memory. The bitter personal feud stopped being a sorry public spectacle once he was taken away by his wife and son.