George Fernandes: Rebel Without A Pause
| Ranjit Bhushan - 29 Jan 2019

George Fernandes: Rebel Without A Pause

By Ranjit Bhushan

George Fernandes, a veteran socialist leader and former Defence Minister of India, has passed away at 88. He had been unwell and bedridden over the past few years. As a defence minister, Fernandes oversaw the Pokhran nuclear tests of 1998 and the Kargil war in 1999 during the NDA government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee.  George Fernandes was a senior Janata Dal leader before he founded the Samata Party. He was jailed during the 1975 Emergency imposed by the Indira Gandhi-led Congress government for what was dubbed the "Baroda Dynamite Conspiracy" to blow up government establishments and railway tracks.

Here is an article written by senior journalist Ranjit Bhushan on George Fernandes, published in THE SUNDAY INDIAN, in Oct 2012, that gives ample insight into his life and political journey:

Struck with Alzheimer and living a catatonic existence, George Fernandes is a pale shadow of his fiery best. Ranjit Bhushan looks at the controversies that continue to dog the veteran Socialist in the twilight of his political career.

In a quiet house in south Delhi's Panchsheel Enclave, aptly christened Shanti Nivas, a piece of modern India lives on.

The nameplate at Shanti Nivas merely announces `Leila Fernandes'. In the portico, a stationary mid-size steel gray Swift gives no indication of its owner, nor his hallowed background, which three decades or so ago, had rocked a smug Congress establishment like few things till then.

At closer scrutiny, it is the living abodes of George Fernandes, former Union minister, rebel, maverick, a drop out, survivor, call it you may. Typically of the man, there is no ostentation or guards on duty outside the residence – not different from his tenure in two NDA

governments between 1998 to 2004, when he became the first and only Union Defence Minister of India not to deploy official security at his official residence in central Delhi's Krishna Menon Marg.

By not doing so, he had paid a price. In 2001, investigative journalists from Tehelka portal had used these lacunae to slip into his official residence and meet Jaya Jaitly, Samata Party head and his

close aide. It was no ordinary meeting. Setting up a bogus London-based company selling thermal binoculars, the portal claimed to have filmed Jaitly and other leading lights, as being part of the deal-making. In the outcry, George quit, although he was not accused of taking a bribe. Sadly for the veteran Socialist though, the Jaitly saga continues to dog him.

Back in the 1960s, when he galvanised Mumbai's trade unions and took on the might of Congress strongman SK Patil, no one gave him a chance. Yet he had come out fighting and carved out a niche in Mumbai's political world till then dominated by the Congress and its Maratha satraps.

Since then, it has been a roller coaster ride for a man who can legitimately be placed in a select list of politicians who are truly pan-Indian. Born in Mangalore, employed in  Mumbai, winning successive

elections in Bihar and presiding over policy as the cabinet minister in Delhi, George Fernandes or Gerry to his close circle, was always far removed from the straitjacketed and parochial Indian politician who rarely ventured out of his state.

In the caste-ridden Bihar politics of the 1970s, when the vote bank arithmetic centered around intensely local equations, the entry of George Fernandes, a south Indian Christian, on the state's scene was like a wisp of fresh air. Cutting across barriers, he registered a record breaking victory margin of 4.25 lakhs from the Muzaffarpur Lok Sabha constituency in the 1977 post-Emergency General Elections.

The road leading up to that victory was no less dramatic. As a principal accused in the Baroda dynamite case, the picture of a bespectacled,curly-haired man in chains, captured the imagination of an entire electorate and became the symbol of defiance to Indira Gandhi's authoritarian ways and global news networks flashed it as their lead photo. After then, it became a question of cashing in a strong anti-Congress sentiment and no one knew how to do it better than George.

Says Dr Harendra Kumar, his close friend from Muzaffarpur, ``Nitish Kumar is a product of the George Fernandes school. It goes to the latter's credit that he goaded Nitish and his Samata Party into an alliance with the BJP ending years of Lalu raj in the state.''

No surprise then that the Bihar Chief Minister's backyard Nalanda, became George's next stop after Muzaffarpur. He won the Nalanda seat twice, 1996 and 1998. Later came the fall out with Nitish but before the controversy could snowball, the wily Bihar Chief Minister quickly nominated him to the Rajya Sabha.

As Union Minister in the Morarji Desai government, George raised a storm when he banned Coca Cola, in an act of defiance to multinational companies. The little background to this ban is interesting. According to Harendra Kumar, when George after his historic first win came to the Muzaffarpur circuit house, he was offered a Coke by the then district magistrate. What followed took everyone by surprise. The newly-elected MP launched a diatribe against multinationals and vowed to remove Cola from not just the state but the country itself! The rest is history.

George's political actions during his four-decade political journey have never been easy to predict – and that perhaps is his USP. When political brinkmanship and vaulting ambitions threatened to bring down the Morarji Desai government, George offered one of the most stoicdefences of the Janta Party government – but later in the day, quite inexplicably, put in his papers.

Says a former Janata Dal associate, who requests anonymity given ``George sahab's'' health, ``He is complex enough to defy analysis. He resigned on the question of the dual membership along with former Socialist leader Madhu Limaye in 1979, yet he became BJP's mascot in the Atal Behari Vajpayee's NDA government. History was repeated in 1989-90 when George broke away from the Janata Dal and formed the Samata party in 1995 when VP Singh was no longer PM.

His govt was defeated in 1991, which is a bit like the chequered history of Socialists in India itself. Pretty much in themould of a Ram Manohar Lohia, his two principal political opponents have been the Congress for its family rule - and it goes to George's credit that he one of the few politicians not accused of nepotism – and the Left which believes that Socialists like George actually scuppered India's Communist dream and worse, acted as Trojan Horses for a revivalist Hindu Right wing.

Even though George's stint as the Union Defence Minister was marked by the sacking of the country's Navy chief and the Kargil war, the then Chief of Army Staff Gen. VP Malik, draws an evocative picture of his former boss.   ``He was a very open person and was always willing to go through the documents, even if lengthy. He was concerned about the welfare of men. It was proved by the number of visits he made to difficult forward areas. Siachen was one such destination which he visited more than anyone else.''

At Panchsheel Park, it is difficult to believe that its main resident has had such a hoary past. Out of the public eye and political networks, the once fiery orator has wife Leila Kabir and three attendants for the company. Life is a tad staid: breakfast at 9.00 am, lunch at 1.30 pm and dinner between 7.30 to 8.00 pm.

A quote or photographs – much less an interview - is out of the question. Says a source who has access to the household, ``George is lost to the world with his Alzheimer's disease. He does not what is going on, is bedridden and seriously ill.''

Controversies, it appears, are not willing to let go of him even in this catatonic stage. In August this year, former Samata Party president Jaya Jaitly and a close party colleague (see interview) was allowed to meet George once every fortnight for 15 minutes.

The Supreme Court allowed Jaitly's plea after the Delhi High Court had denied her permission to visit her ailing 82-year-old comrade. The Samata Party leader had earlier moved the High Court after Fernandes's family members – read wife Leila Kabir - had not allowed this meeting.

The High Court had earlier ruled that she had no business to claim visitation rights. Jaitly had sought permission on the ground that she has been George's close political colleague and confidante for more than 30 years and that he required aid and assistance from an old friend.

Her plea was opposed by Fernandes' family on grounds of her locus standi. They contended she could not be added as a party because she had no legal status. For George, it is probably ironic that a controversy of this nature has emerged at the end of his political career. Sadly, this is one dispute where his legendary oratory skills and powers to persuade cannot be put to use.

Photo - Ranjan Basu 

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