George Fernandes: The Socialist who refused to make the Faustian bargain with Gandhis

George Fernandes, a guiding light of the anti-Congress political spectrum, dies a clean man, just like he conducted his politics.

“Mujhe lagta hai ki kisi ghulam ki aulad ne ye kaam kiya hai. koi sabhya aadmi ye kaam katai nahi karta. kis aadhar pe laga di ye? ye kya desh kya in logo ne khareed liya hai kya? Nehru khandan.. kya khandan hai, lootpaat wala”. Peeved at Sonia Gandhi’s picture appearing at Constitution Club in Delhi, George Fernandes remarked so and got the picture removed. George Fernandes was not one to mince words when in active politics. George Fernandes has gone silent today.

Born in Mangaluru in 1930, Fernandes won Lok Sabha elections from Bombay (now Mumbai) South seat in 1967, Muzaffarpur seat in 1977, 1980, 1989, 1991, and 2004, and Nalanda seat in 1996, 1998, and 1999. Ironically, the one election he lost in 1984 was from Bangalore North seat in his home state. Off his wins, the one in 1977 stood out.

Fernandes, who had no connection with Muzaffarpur until then, contested this election post-Emergency election, while he was still lodged in prison. He did not visit his constituency even once. He polled 77.3% of the total votes, with his Congress rival Nitishwar Prasad Singh getting just 12.2%. Muzaffarpur would not let down the poster child of the resistance against Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, even if Muzaffarpur did not know him personally.

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Fernandes’ 1976 picture, his left hand raised, fist marking his resolve and the long iron chain depicting his captivity, is one of the most iconic and identifiable pictures in Indian politics. He was arrested in the Baroda Dynamite Case during the Emergency. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had charged Fernandes with a conspiracy to overthrow the Indian government and tried him in Delhi rather than in Gujarat, one of the few states in the initial days of Emergency not to have a Congress government. Fernandes and his alleged co-conspirators were charged for plotting blasts in government offices and at Indira Gandhi’s Varanasi rally venue to protest the imposition of Emergency. He was still under trial and lodged in the Tihar jail when he won the Muzaffarpur seat. The case was withdrawn by the Janata government in 1977.

George Fernandes was a principled socialist leader who became active in Mumbai local politics in the 1960s. Influenced by Rammanohar Lohia, he built his career as a trade unionist. In the tumultuous years when the nature of the Mumbai industry was changing, and when the industry-labour relations were at their ebb, Fernandes emerged as the voice of the unions. He would routinely call for strikes in Mumbai in the 1960s and was dubbed as the man who could stop Mumbai.

Although his influence in the city waned in the 1970s as the industry diversified and the underworld influence increased, his most famous strike action is from 1974. As the President of the All India Railwaymen’s Federation, he called for a nationwide strike by motormen in the month of May that year. His strike call was supported by other Railway employees as well as transport operators like taxi unions in Mumbai. The city of Mumbai as also most parts of the Railway-dependent country came to a grinding halt. Thousands of arrests followed during the 19-day strike, as then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was spooked by this subordination – this event is said to have influenced her decision to impose Emergency in 1975 among other things.

His stints as Union Minister were eventful and controversial.

In the Janata government of 1977, he was appointed the Minister of Industries. He was against globalization and sought to strictly impose various rules which discouraged foreign capital investment in India. Multinationals like IBM and Coca-Cola quit India during his term as the Janata government tried to heavy-handedly unwind everything they disliked too early in the term.

His opposition to then Janata Party, now Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), ministers and legislators keeping active Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) connections while being part of a common agenda driven government, was one of the reasons why the Morarji Desai government fell in 1979. His political journey which started with the Samyukt Socialist Party in 1967, moved to Bharatiya Lok Dal in 1977, Janata Party (Secular) in 1980, led him to Janata Dal in the late 1980s. As the Railways Minister in the VP Singh Cabinet, he started the process of developing what is today known as Konkan Railways.

In 1994, Fernandes formed the Samata Party, which went on to ally with the BJP, while his erstwhile Janata Party (Secular) and Janata Dal colleagues distanced themselves from the emerging national party, in a reiteration of the 1979 stand. Through Samata Party’s association with the BJP, Fernandes became the Defence Minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.

As the Defence Minister, Fernandes dealt with the Kargil War of 1999, which came with its own trials and tribulations. Navigating through a difficult period, Fernandes then oversaw the defence budget increase in the Vajpayee era and building stronger bases in Siachen. He made 18 visits to Siachen, starting the process of Indian Defence Ministers making regular visits to the icy heights, which continues till date.

The Kargil War also brought Fernandes the infamy of Operation West End in 2001. The employees of Tehelka magazine, then riding the rising graph of Indian media modernization, conducted a sting operation attempting to bribe defence officials. They posed as arms dealers and bribed several officials and politicians luring them into murky dealings, using a fictitious London-based company West End as the front. Fernandes resigned in the wake of this scandal but was later reinstated as the Defence Minister.

However soon after in 2002, Fernandes was accused of being involved in the infamous Coffin Scam. The alleged scam was about overpaying for coffins bought from the United States to carry the mortal remains of the Kargil War soldiers. The alleged scam made headlines just before the 2004 election. However, the CBI could not furnish any evidence in its 2009 charge-sheet against Fernandes. In fact, in October 2015, the Supreme Court discharged all the accused in this alleged scam as being not guilty.

However, the allegations resonated loud in the state elections 2002 through 2004 and in the run-up to the 2004 General Elections. ‘Coffin chor gaddi chhodo’ – Congress cried in Parliament, leading to routine House disruptions. Fernandes did not have the benefit of agile media or social media to his rescue then. The Vajpayee government paid the price having been considered tainted. The eerie similarities between this allegation and what’s playing out now with the Rafale deal cannot be a coincidence.

Fernandes merged his Samata Party with the Janata Dal (United) (JDU), which was one of the factions to come out of the Janata Dal splits in the late 1990s. The JDU was his last political home – he won the Nalanda seat for the JDU in 2004, resigning in 2006, when he went off the active political scene.

Fernandes frequently changed his party allegiances, alliances, and Lok Sabha seats. There was however one thing which remained permanent to his politics – the opposition to the Congress and to the Nehru-Gandhi family. He was a strident critic of Indira Gandhi and all her Congress successors. Unlike his other socialist fellow-travellers, he never had a truck with Congress. He paid the price for this intransigence, getting jailed without being charge-sheeted, being tortured in the Tihar jail, and then being named in scams which were never proven.

His politics was not palatable to everyone and his views evolved only in the last decade of his public life when he supported the Pokhran nuclear tests and steadfastly remained a Vajpayee backer in a reformist, pro-market government. But he remained principled and true to his convictions.

George Fernandes, a guiding light of the anti-Congress political spectrum, dies a clean man, just like he conducted his politics.


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