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George Fernandes: Man of extremes

Print edition : Mar 01, 2019 T+T-
George Fernandes.

George Fernandes.

George Fernandes’ (1930-2019) personal life and political career saw many highs and lows and this is generally attributed to his mercurial mind.

POLITICAL analysts and fellow politicians have often used figurative expressions to describe George Mathew Fernandes’ diverse attributes. Firebrand, rebel, giant killer, rabble-rouser, master organiser, disruptor, visionary, maverick, bundle of contradictions, turncoat, and fickle and unreliable person were some of the encomiums and expletives that they employed. Indeed, all political leaders get branded in contrasting ways, depending on the political orientation of those who are describing them, but even so the sobriquets Fernandes earned were unique in their multifariousness. Equally exceptionally, each depiction seemed to fit him well at different junctures of his personal life and political career.

This aspect of Fernandes came up during a discussion in the mid 2000s with Hariraj Singh Tyagi, a veteran socialist leader from Meerut in Uttar Pradesh and a close associate of Fernandes for nearly three and a half decades. (Tyagi passed away in December 2009.) I had sought Tyagi’s views on this rather unique status Fernandes seemed to enjoy. “That is because George could well be the epitome of the word ‘mercurial’,” responded Tyagi. “Even a cursory look at his journey through life and politics would underline this. He was at the same time progressive and regressive, a self-proclaimed adherent to secular ideals and also one malleable before fundamentalist interests, a votary of peace and disarmament as well as of aggressive initiatives in the name of national security, an anti-corruption crusader at one point and later one who had no qualms about compromising with vested interests steeped in corruption. There was nothing constant about his personality. He could flip-flop, driven by deep convictions on the one side and unadulterated political expediency on the other. His personal life, as well as his political career, was marked by such highs and lows, once again underscoring the mercurial element.”

Asked to elucidate on Fernandes’ fundamental motives in taking these divergent positions and charting a fluctuating political trajectory, Tyagi said that the motives were also mercurial, though he was consistent about two things: adherence to a simple lifestyle highlighted by his penchant for wearing crumpled kurta-pyjamas and realpolitik opposition to the Congress through most of his life. (There was one aberration to this rule as Fernandes had briefly supported Charan Singh, as the Jat leader got around to seek Congress support and become Prime Minister in 1979.)

Born in a Christian family in Mangaluru in Karnataka, Fernandes displayed a rebellious personality at an early age. His father, John Joseph Fernandes, wanted him to study law, but rebelling against him Fernandes quit studies after matriculation. He was, self-professedly, attracted towards priesthood, an idea that his mother, Alice Martha Fernandes, supported. Fernandes moved to the Saint Peters seminary in Bengaluru at the age of 16 to get trained as a Roman Catholic priest. However, in a matter of two and a half years, he rebelled again, this time against the rectors of the seminary who, according to Fernandes, practised an anti-Christian way of life that perpetuated social inequality.

Soon after, Fernandes adopted “Freethought” as his personal philosophy and trade union activity as his vocation. He started this line of activity in Mangaluru by organising transport and hotel industry workers but soon moved on to Bombay (now Mumbai). In the metropolis, he found a job as a proofreader and persisted with trade union activity inspired by socialist thought. It was at this time that he came in contact with Ram Manohar Lohia, whom he referred to as his mentor in later years, and Placid D’Mello, a fellow Mangalorean hailed as the champion of dock workers’ rights in the 1940s and the early 1950s. D’Mello died in 1955, but by that time Fernandes had acquired the status of a firebrand trade unionist and was perceived as a true follower of the D’Mello school of social and political activism.

Fernandes’ stature grew steadily in Mumbai’s political circles. He was elected to the Bombay Municipal Corporation in 1961. He was Municipal Councillor for seven years. Even before his last term ended, he contested the 1967 Lok Sabha election from Bombay South constituency and earned the sobriquet of “giant killer” when he defeated S.K. Patil, the legendary freedom fighter, Congress leader, three-time Mayor of Bombay and Minister in the Cabinets of Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Sastri and Indira Gandhi. Fernandes’ upset victory practically put an end to Patil’s political career. He was celebrated as one of the big south Indian leaders to make an impact in post-Independence national politics.

Fernandes’ political manoeuvres in the 1960s earned him the sobriquet of political and organisational disruptor. Right through the 1960s, he made a striking disruptionist impact on his political outfit, the Socialist Party. During these years, he was part of the many tumults and splits among the various socialist political formations and played an important role in the formation of the Samyukta Socialist Party (SSP) in 1964. Through these manoeuvres he rose to the position of general secretary of the SSP in 1969. But by 1971, it was clear that Fernandes had lost his grip over the Mumbai trade union scene as he focussed his attention on national politics. This became evident when he returned to Bombay South constituency to contest the Lok Sabha election. This time he was not only defeated but had to forfeit his deposit. Fernandes never contested an election in Mumbai after that. Mumbai had lost its charm for the mercurial politician.

Firebrand image

However, he rediscovered his firebrand image at the national level through the all-India railway strike in 1974. He joined hands with other Left parties, including the communist parties, and played an important role in the formation of the National Coordinating Committee for Railwaymen’s Struggle, which brought together not only all railway unions but also the Central trade unions across various sectors. The strike started on May 8, 1974, and acquired the proportions of a national strike, with workers from diverse sectors participating in it. The Indira Gandhi government detained thousands of workers and leaders across the country in order to crush the strike. There is little doubt that the mass resentment that manifested through the strike was one of the important factors that impelled Indira Gandhi to impose the Emergency in June 1975, although the other immediate triggers included the Allahabad High Court verdict that held her guilty of misuse of government machinery for her election campaign.

When the Emergency was imposed, Fernandes managed to go underground. According to many of his friends and associates, he joined hands with a clutch of people to engineer a blast at a public meeting of Indira Gandhi. This was later called the Baroda dynamite case. The blast plan did not work out, and Fernandes was found and arrested from Kolkata on June 10, 1976, nearly a year after the Emergency was imposed. The photograph of him after the arrest (Fernandes was seen defiantly raising his handcuffed fist) became one of the major protest icons of the anti-Emergency movement. When the Emergency was lifted in 1977 and the Lok Sabha election took place, Fernandes was fielded by the newly formed Janata Party, a conglomeration of different parties that opposed the Emergency, from Muzaffarpur constituency in Bihar. He contested the election from jail since he had not been released despite the lifting of the Emergency and won by a record margin.

Fernandes was made Industry Minister in the Morarji Desai government. As a Minister, Fernandes once again revived his firebrand image when he ordered the ouster of the computer multinational International Business Machines (now known as IBM) and Coca-Cola for not diluting their shareholding in their Indian associate companies. But the continued stint in power effected yet another mercurial twist in the leader. Dumping his ardent advocacy against the domination of multinational corporations, he pushed through a technical collaboration with the German engineering giant Siemens and Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd despite stiff opposition from his comrades in the 1974 strike, the workers of BHEL.

Then came one of the most striking flip-flops of his political career. Throughout his tenure as a Minister in the Morarji Desai government (1977-79), he had repeatedly signalled that he was uncomfortable with Jana Sangh elements in the Janata Party since they still retained the membership of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). It was his speech in Parliament criticising the dual membership of Jana Sangh members that resulted in the collapse of the Desai government. The political world naturally expected Fernandes to stay resolutely with Desai. But in an amazing volte-face , he deserted Desai and moved on to the side of the western Uttar Pradesh leader Charan Singh, who was confabulating with the Congress to become Prime Minister. After the collapse of the Charan Singh government, Fernandes spent the next 10 years as an opposition politician, winning one election from Muzaffarpur in 1980 and losing the 1984 election from Bangalore North.

Visionary administrator

In 1988-89, when Vishwanath Pratap Singh rebelled in the Congress against the leadership of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and raised corruption charges in the Bofors gun and the HDW submarines deals, Fernandes aligned himself with the former and joined the Janata Dal, which was formed in the run-up to the 1989 Lok Sabha election. The Congress was defeated, and the Janata Dal came to power with V.P. Singh as Prime Minister. Fernandes became Railway Minister, and it was during this stint that he was hailed as a visionary administrator, essentially on account of the manner in which he initiated work on the Konkan Railway connecting Mumbai and Mangaluru. The Janata Dal government was also short-lived. It fell, riven once again by internal dissensions in the ruling coalition and the withdrawal of support by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which launched its aggressive Ayodhya Ram Janmabhoomi campaign in the early 1990s.

However, by then V.P. Singh had given shape to a strong Other Backward Classes (OBC)-oriented political movement across north India, leading to the emergence into national prominence of many regional leaders such as Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar. Both Mulayam Singh and Lalu Prasad became Chief Ministers in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar respectively. Nitish Kumar joined hands with Fernandes in fighting Lalu Prasad and his Rashtriya Janata Dal by forming the Samata Party in 1994, but this association collapsed around 2004 when Nitish Kumar did not field him in the Lok Sabha election. By then, Fernandes was ailing, primarily on account of Alzheimer’s disease.

According to Tyagi and other associates of Fernandes, it was the rise of new socialist leaders in the Indian political firmament that made the once dynamic and visionary politician into a turncoat, who sought some sort of parliamentary power to carry on with his pursuits. It was this drive that resulted in Fernandes setting up the Samata Party and joining the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The leader who once took up a strong position against the RSS and had squarely blamed the Sangh Parivar for inflicting a national disaster through the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 got sucked clean into the Hindutva web. From then on, Fernandes performed a series of political and ideological somersaults.

The leader who advocated global disarmament espied a ganging up of the world’s five nuclear powers against India and went all out in support of the BJP and Sangh Parivar’s perceptions of danger to national security. Fernandes even gave the Bajrang Dal, the Sangh Parivar outfit, a clean chit when Graham Staines, the Australian missionary, and his sons were burnt to death in Odisha in 1999.

Of course, these moves had their benefits as Fernandes held the Defence portfolio when the NDA led by A.B. Vajpayee, came to power in 1998 and 1999. He oversaw the 1998 Pokhran-II nuclear blasts and the 1999 Kargil War. He was forced to step down as Defence Minister in March 2001 as both his official associates and Samata Party office bearers were exposed negotiating defence deals relating to the purchase of Barak missiles. In 2002, the Kargil coffin scam erupted, which raised pointed queries about the one-time anti-corruption crusader. The coffin caskets were bought during the Kargil War from the United States-based funeral service company Buitron and Baiza. The charges against the Defence Ministry, as detailed in a report filed by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, was that the coffins were purchased at a price higher than the actual cost, resulting in a loss of $1,87,000 to the exchequer. The case relating to the scam did not result in a damning indictment of Fernandes, but it did raise doubts about his political integrity and probity in public life.

Fernandes had two important personal relationships, with Leila Kabir and Jaya Jaitley. Fernandes married Leila Kabir in 1971. They had a son, Sean Fernandes, but they separated in the early 1980s. Jaya Jaitley was Fernandes’ companion from 1984. However, Leila Kabir came back into his life in 2010 when his ailments intensified. He was under her care until his death.

How would history evaluate George Fernandes? Unlike Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad, his bete noir s in the socialist firmament, Fernandes has not left behind a legacy of social and economic empowerment, which the Yadav leaders achieved through substantive assertion of OBC- and Dalit-oriented politics. Fernandes’ record also does not contain anything to match the developmental model pursued by Nitish Kumar, wherein a creative combination of social justice concerns and values along with economic upliftment and infrastructure building was taken forward to a considerable extent. But, Fernandes the administrator and visionary planner will be remembered for the Konkan Railway. The leader who was involved in and was witness to many watershed periods in contemporary India would have been credited with much more had it not been for his mercurial engagement with life and politics.