Going by today’s standards, George Fernandes, who died on January 29 at the age of 88, was the ultimate “anti-national”.
He managed to disrupt the entire railway network with his successful all India strike in 1974. The 1.7 million railway workers he had mobilised brought the country to a grinding halt. Just three years earlier, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, at the peak of her popularity as prime minister, was being hailed as a “Durga” after the creation of Bangladesh. The strike lasted 20 days, and dealt a body blow to the Congress government.
In 1974-75, he threw himself in the “JP” movement against high level corruption, rising prices, electoral malpractices. Political leader and social activist Jayaprakash Narayan, better known as JP, led the Bihar movement for “total revolution”. At one stage he had asked the police and army to disobey order which he considered illegal, and Fernandes gave his total support to JP.
During the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975-’77, George Fernandes was charged in the Baroda Dynamite case, but managed to defy arrest for a whole year. Unlike other political leaders who were arrested on the night of June 25, George had got wind of the impending move and went underground.
For a group of us who were working on Himmat magazine at the time, and would sometimes help the local socialists in Mumbai to put together underground parchas or leaflets in 1976, with news that could not be published because of censorship, it was thrilling to hear stories about how Fernandes had stayed in a particular place for a few hours but managed to give the police the slip just in time.
In June 1976, however, he was betrayed, and arrested.
And then came the day, when he was brought to court in chains, and in complete defiance of the might of the Indian state, he vowed to fight against Indira Gandhi’s dictatorship. There had been stories about how a bright light was shone at him constantly in prison to prevent him from sleeping. That photograph of a chained Fernandes – as also of him successfully fighting from prison the 1977 elections, from Muzaffarpur in Bihar on a Janata Party ticket – are now an indelible part of the Indian story.
Fernandes wanted to bring Naxalites into the mainstream. He was in contact with Kashmiri militants to resolve the Kashmir tangle. He opened his doors to refugees from Tibet and Myanmar, and to Nagas, and the main gate at his Krishna Menon Marg home in Lutyens Delhi, when he was Union defence minister, was always open and unmanned.
If one were to try and assess Fernandes’ contribution to India over the years, it lay in his struggle to deepen the rights of the workers in the early years of his public life, and his fight for democratic freedoms, endangered during the Emergency.
The second aspect of his role lay in helping to craft, unite and nurture political groups opposed to the Congress, which was then the dominant force in Indian politics. The original author of anti-Congressism in the country, Ram Manohar Lohia, was his mentor.
He took on the Congress frontally when he defeated the party strongman SK Patil in his own den in Mumbai in 1967, and was hailed as a “giant killer” all over the country. That year the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal coalition governments (comprising the Bharatiya Kranti Dal, the Samyukta Socialist Party, the Praja Socialist Party and the Jana Sangh) replaced Congress governments in the Hindi belt.
This was followed by the onset of Janata Party government in 1977, which dethroned the Congress, and he was one of its stars. Indira Gandhi lost even her own seat.
He cast his lot with the anti-Congress forces again in the 1987-’89 period, working with VP Singh who dethroned Rajiv Gandhi, despite his brute majority of 415 Lok Sabha seats, in the 1989 general elections. And he made common cause with the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance, which was arraigned against the Congress during 1998-2004.
But if there was a development Fernandes could not live down – which could be called a turning point in his political career – it was in July 1979, when he defended Morarji Desai’s Janata Party government after it faced a no-confidence motion in Parliament. I still remember it was a Thursday. Fernandes gave an impassioned, brilliant performance, which only he could give. But by Sunday morning, he had done a turnaround at the instance of Madhu Limaye, a socialist colleague, and gone to the rebel camp, led by Chaudhary Charan Singh. Limaye had called the breakup of Janata Party a historic necessity of the time. Desai subsequently submitted his resignation.
What could be more ironical than to have Fernandes, who was so opposed to the Congress, take a step that helped bring down the first non-Congress government at the Centre, and paved the way for the return of Indira Gandhi in 1980. Even his family was baffled by why he did it.
It was then that he transited from being the fiery Fernandes to “George Saab”, and in the years that followed he became like any other politician. He managed contradictions and navigated minefields, this time from within the system, and not outside it with the freedom to mount an attack, as he used to do in his earlier avatar.
He would, however, sometimes display flashes of his earlier spirit. When he was defence minister under Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998-2004), he went umpteen times to the freezing heights of the Siachen glacier in Jammu and Kashmir to spend time with Indian soldiers.
Many of his colleagues were taken aback when he aligned with the BJP later, a party he had criticised for its ideology, after having formed the Samata Party in 1994. Was it necessitated by the need for political survival and to retain his political relevance? The more charitable put this to a “no option” scenario given his visceral dislike of the Congress.
The Congress too loved to hate Fernandes, from the days of Indira Gandhi to Sonia Gandhi. There were those weeks in Parliament when the moment he would get up to speak as defence minister, his voice would be drowned by slogans of “coffin chor” being shouted by Congress members. This was a reference to the coffin gate scam in which allegations were made that the caskets bought by India in 2002 were of poor quality and exorbitantly priced. (The CBI, however, did not name Fernandes when it filed its chargesheet in the case in 2009.)
In some way, it was in the fitness of things that besides leaders from BJP, Janata Dal (United) and other parties, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, representing the Congress he had hated, also attended his funeral last Thursday.
Fernandes was a mass leader, but had a personal touch.
In the late 1960s, Rajmohan Gandhi had invited Fernandes to meet a group of us in Mumbai. Most of us were in our teens, in college or just out of it, and we had come to Mumbai for a programme.
He oozed charm, energy, drive, ready to take on the powerful and change the lot of the poor and the deprived. He spoke to us about India, about his work with the trade unions, his early start as a priest, which his parents wanted him to be.
Then he offered to drive us around Mumbai – some of us had come to the metropolis for the first time – in his car. It was a black one (I do not recall its make) but I remember several of us managed to squeeze in at the back as we went around the city. He took us to his office and told us how he had slept on the bench there on many a night.
Once, in 1977, my grandfather, a lawyer in Delhi, who did not know him, had written to him, saying that he suffered from ill health and despite repeated attempts he had not been able to get a telephone installed at his home. (I had suggested that he write to Fernandes soon after the Janata Party government came to power because he was known to be a “doer”.) Within four days the telephone was installed, and Fernandes wrote him a personal three-line note.
George Fernandes was a hero to many and it is heroes who keep the spirit of a nation alive, even though none of them is perfect. Unfortunately, they do not make that kind any more.