Coalitions are tricky. Each constituent looks for extra leverage, and the tensions between the leading party and its allies are always below the surface. Anyone rocking the boat is condemned by all.
Post the 1980s, many fell away because George Fernandes gave the fight against injustice greater priority than acquiring power. An example of this was his decision to resign from the Janata government in 1979, despite having personally suffered the excesses of the Emergency. Essentially, the Janata government of 1977 was a coalition government in which parties had technically submerged their identities for what turned out to be a very short period. He had then defended the government powerfully in Parliament in 1979 upon the request of Prime Minister Morarji Desai.
Overnight, he changed his stance, shocking and deeply disappointing his socialist colleagues and the rest of the country. During the night, having tried his utmost to persuade the Left parties headed by Jyoti Basu, and other senior colleagues in government, not to contribute to the imminent collapse of the government, he was subjected to a long political and finally emotional argument by Madhu Limaye. Limaye failed to convince George Fernandes with his ideological arguments to resign on the issue of the Jan Sangh’s dual membership in the RSS. Finally, he lobbed him a big sentimental ball: “Do all our years of friendship mean nothing to you?” he asked. At that point George Fernandes stood up and said, “Madhu, if it all comes down to just that, I will submit my resignation tomorrow morning.” And that is what happened.
George Fernandes’s action had many unpleasant repercussions. The ones that dogged him as an individual lasted almost a decade. He was well aware of the negative impact his political reputation suffered because of his old comrade-in-arms Madhu Limaye; however, although he visited the latter less often after that, he never said anything to blame him.
George Fernandes fought his way out of an almost isolated political existence by leading the battle against the Rajiv Gandhi government’s reported corruption in the Bofors and HDW submarine deals. He constantly hurtled through the length and breadth of the country for trade union gatherings. During this time, he also played midwife in the delivery of VP Singh as an alternative “clean” leader.
It was during this entire period that I believe he decided that he would never again be responsible for the fall of a government which he helped create and thus became a disciplined soldier in other coalition periods.
In late 1989, as the National Front government set itself up, the walls of power came up alongside. VP Singh, with his typical caginess, kept even his closest colleagues on tenterhooks, informing them that they would become ministers only half an hour before they were expected to be sworn in. Some eager ones were said to have already got their bandhgala suits, ones with tight necks, stitched in anticipation. Everyone seemed to be waiting anxiously for an advance indication from the prime minister, but that did not happen. George Sahib nonchalantly went upstairs for an afternoon nap and had no time to change into a fresh kurta when he was woken up and told to reach Rashtrapati Bhavan in twenty minutes. His colleagues and I sat in the office downstairs in his tiny apartment at Hauz Khas, amazed at the lack of dignity in the way this was done. Everyone felt ridiculous.
A day or so after the swearing in of the council of ministers, the portfolios were announced. George Fernandes was astounded that he had been allocated the Ministry of Railways. He said he had led the biggest railway strike in Asia and headed railway unions. How could he be sitting across them at the table now? For three days he refused to go to Rail Bhavan to attend office. Finally, VP Singh assured him he would change his portfolio after three months. That never happened. George Fernandes went to office in his old diesel Premier Padmini car driven by his Mumbai colleague Freddie D’Sa. The guard at the Ministry’s entrance wouldn’t let him in and told him to get an entrance slip made at the reception first. He hadn’t recognised the new boss who had arrived with no prior information or pomp and splendour.
In 1998, the NDA government chose George Fernandes as the convener of the alliance. He had helped draft the Common Agenda for Governance and was considered by the BJP to have given it the legitimacy required to reassure all the dithering “are we secular/are we not?” allies to come on board to give it a clear majority. This alienated many of his socialist colleagues like Madhu Dandavate and Surendra Mohan but even they were divided between the younger and more ambitious ones who stayed because they wanted to pursue an active political life and felt George Fernandes was the best bet to help them achieve it in alliance with the BJP.
He always felt happier being among colleagues with a fighting spirit who had a strong nose for electoral politics.
Thus he ignored those who were alienated unless they too came occasionally to ask for small personal favours like school and hospital admissions, which he happily facilitated. As mentioned earlier, party workers and even coalition partners constantly asked for favours, from cash to free travel passes to positions on committees that would give their acolytes some clout; there were requests for even getting children who had failed their examinations to be cleared and accepted at interviews. He was always angered or saddened by this, wondering where the fervour to serve without asking for anything in return was disappearing.
Most such people nursed grouses against him thereafter, grumbling that if other parties and politicians helped their people, why he could not. It was just not his style to distribute patronage and largesse, since he had never demanded such things for himself. A lot of the time antagonisms built up against me because of my role as messenger of negative news to these favour-seekers but it did not seem to bother George Sahib in the least that I was the “fall guy”. I grumbled, but did it anyway.
The role as convener of the NDA was sometimes a disappointment for George Fernandes. He thought that there should be a proper mechanism for consultation and coordination between allies so that any political or policy matters could be smoothened out before being made to look like ideological disagreements which were strictly to be kept out of the common agenda. When in the first year of the NDA, something like the singing of “Vande Mataram” in schools in Uttar Pradesh came up, the media chased different coalition partners for their comments, hoping disparate responses would emerge to show dissonance among them. Some nudging must have come from the Congress behind the scenes since the media loved to create headlines like “Mamata and Samata cause headaches for the BJP” or words to that effect.
I didn’t hear any defence on the “Vande Mataram” issue coming from the BJP. Thus when the media rushed to me expecting a negative reaction, I stated what George Fernandes had said to me earlier in the day: “It has been sung in Parliament for quite some time and the practice was introduced by a Congressman. Hindus and Muslims have sung it together during the freedom movement so why should it be considered objectionable now?” But this was all very ad hoc and uncoordinated. Now that the BJP has a majority in Parliament, playing one off the other doesn’t get anyone anywhere.
Excerpted with permission from Life Among The Scorpions, Jaya Jaitly, Rupa Publications.