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A brief biography
Put it down to the current age’s obsession to reduce complexities to bumper stickers. Or the compulsion of journalism to find a vantage through which to lead readers or viewers into a development. While reporting the death of 88-year-old George Fernandes, media outlets called him a former Union minister — an atrociously inadequate description of the Socialist stalwart who captured India’s imagination in the 1970s.
A firebrand before the word became commonplace, Fernandes lit many fires and never allowed the one that smouldered inside him to go out until Alzheimer’s confined him to bed.
Dispatched to a religious seminary by his Mangalorebased middle-class parents who wanted him to be trained as a Catholic priest, Fernandes — ‘George Saheb’ to legions of his admirers across the country — ran away to Bombay. All of 19, he slept on footpaths before finding a mentor in Placid D’Mello, whose Socialist leanings were to prove a life-long influence on the young boy from coastal Karnataka.
Fernandes soon found a job, that of a proofreader with The Times of India, a huge opening for the runaway kid, But the lure of Socialist ideology, its pull multiplied by the growing appeal of Ram Manohar Lohia and his feisty challenge to Congress and the Establishment, ensured it was the first and last job he held.
He plunged himself into the labour movement and started working among taxi drivers, turning Bombay Taxi Union into a formidable force. This was the time when the commercial capital was dominated by the likes of D’Mello, CPI boss S A Dange and his colleague Krishna Desai and, above all, Congress’s S K Patil, “the uncrowned king of Bombay”. With his relentless energy, fearlessness and commitment to the working class, Fernandes was soon holding his own against his better-known peers.
Lived up to reputation as man of action
George Fernandes surpassed them when he pulled off the unthinkable. A big victory over Patil from South Mumbai in the1967 Lok Sabha polls — a feat that made him popular far beyond Bombay as the “giant killer”.
The achievement was nearly dwarfed when he organised a countrywide railway strike in 1974. The strike lasted 20 days and virtually paralysed the rail network.
Indira responded to the rising groundswell of anger by suspending democracy and fundamental rights and jailing almost the entire opposition in June 1975. Fernandes, true to his reputation as a man of action, escaped the dragnet. He was soon plotting resistance against the Emergency and set out to procure dynamite sticks to set off explosions near the venue of Indira’s rallies.
The ‘Baroda Dynamite Case’ also allegedly involved a plan to loot a train ferrying arms from Pimpri to Bombay. The plan failed to take off and Fernandes was arrested in June 1976. He was in jail when Indira, misreading the popular mood, called elections in January 1977. He did not want to contest but was persuaded by colleagues, including former PM Morarji Desai, to enter the fray from Muzaffarpur, Bihar.
It was new terrain for Fernandes who was not allowed to come out of jail. His campaigners went around with cutouts of him in handcuffs and that proved to be enough to earn him a record win.
Fernandes turned down the offer of a ministry in the Janata Party government, relenting only when a mob of angry supporters surrounded him, threatening violent persuasion if he did not agree. He took over as industries minister and his stint came to be remembered for the marching orders he gave to IBM and Coca-Cola.
It was a chaotic spell with Fernandes often struggling to navigate tensions that racked and, eventually, marked the end of the Janata experiment.
Defeat in Lok Sabha polls took Fernandes away from Parliament and into grassroots activism. The polyglot who spoke 10 languages criss-crossed the country to support the mutinies that raged unabated. The exertions ensured his popularity remained intact in the anti-Congress constituency and helped him play a crucial role in the formation of Janata Dal.
Fernandes declined the offer to be railway minister because of his earlier avatar as the leader of rail workers. It took V P Singh and others three days to persuade him and the result was the engineering marvel of Konkan Railway.
He broke away from Janata Dal after Lalu Yadav’s chokehold turned the party into a family fief and launched Samata Party. The disastrous debut of the party failed to faze Fernandes as he, defying accusations of betrayal and opportunism, forged an alliance with BJP, setting the stage for the formation of Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA.
He was offered the defence minister’s post in 1998, and this time he was game for it and performed the role with a vigour that none before him had shown. The tenure was highlighted by the Pokhran nuclear tests and the Kargil war.
He could have been a priest
A 19-Yr-Old From Mangalore Reached Mumbai In 1949, Did Odd Jobs To Survive, And Became A Leader Who Could Bring The City To A Halt
George Fernandes’ story is inextricably linked with Mumbai and its pluralistic culture: It was India’s financial capital that was, for over four decades, witness to the meteoric rise of this maverick ‘mulgaa’ from a gritty trade unionist to India’s defence minister during the Kargil war and the Pokhran test.
Many remember him for the historic railway strike he helmed, a strike that paralysed the city for over a month in May 1974, as also for initiating the Konkan railway project.
Fernandes burst upon the political scene when the socialist-left movement was at its peak, and a set of new leaders — P D’Mello, Shripad Amrit Dange and G D Ambekar, for instance — were geared up to uphold the cause of the working class and its growing aspirations.
All of 19, Fernandes came to Mumbai in 1949, tiptoeing out of a seminary where, so goes the story, he was to undergo rigorous training as a Christian priest. The homeless migrant from Mangalore did odd jobs, including a brief stint in TOI, it is said. He would eat ‘misal pav’ and sleep on the pavement, soaking in the city.
Veteran dock leader P D’Mello groomed Fernandes who, said writer Jayant Dharmadhikari, was “a born leader”. “He had a natural instinct to organise people and lead them. Soon, he led the BEST workers’ union and the Bombay Taximen Union,” said Dharmadhikari, one of Fernandes’ close colleagues for decades.
Mumbaikars unanimously hailed Fernandes as the ‘giant killer’ after he defeated Congress kingpin S K Patil from Mumbai South in the 1967 Lok Sabha elections. While he took on the Congress regime in the Lok Sabha with a ferocity that would often leave Indira Gandhi speechless, he continued to helm the city’s trade unions with ample help from close colleagues such as Bal Dandawate, Narayan Tawde, Ranjit Bhanu, Ranga Rachure and, in later years, Sharad Rao.
Dharmadhikari recalled how a prestigious bank once turned down the leader’s plea for soft loans to Mumbai’s taximen. “As he stepped out of the bank, George told his colleague there should be a bank for the working class. Within two months India’s first labour bank, now known as New India Cooperative Bank, was flagged off,” Dharmadhikari said.
Old-timers said the socialist-left movement began to lose its grip over the city following Thackeray’s rise in the 1980s. While Dange faded into oblivion, Fernandes, a close Thackeray friend, shifted his political base to Bihar after he lost the 1971 LS election.
It is said Fernandes would occasionally visit Matoshree to spend an evening with Bal, as he’d address the Sena patriarch. Fernandes, Thackeray and Vasantrao Naik, then Congress CM, formed the formidable troika of state politics.
Sharad Pawar teamed up with Fernandes and Thackeray during the prolonged textile strike in the early 1980s to cut trade union leader Dr Datta Samant to size. However, the alliance was short-lived.
Fernandes’ decision to join the NDA regime as defence minister shocked his socialist friends from Mumbai. “However, political parameters had changed considerably by then, and Fernandes too had mellowed,” a Janata Party functionary said. “Fernandes was keen to keep his socialist flock together in Bihar. He had no other alternative but to join NDA,” Dharmadhikari said.
As defence minister
As a trade unionist and socialist of long-standing, with his trademark disheveled hair, crumpled kurta-pyjamas and chappals, one would imagine George Fernandes + being an oddity in the spit and polish environs of the military as well as at the helm of the defence ministry with all its national security imperatives. He was not.
Not only did "George Sahib" endear himself to soldiers on the ground, whether by notching well over 30 visits to the Siachen Glacier or flying in a MiG-21 fighter to dispel fears of it being "a flying coffin", the military brass too found it easy to communicate and discuss security issues with him.
Fernandes’ decision in 1998 to send three MoD bureaucrats on a temporary punishment posting to Siachen for delaying procurement of snow scooters for troops deployed on the world’s highest and coldest battlefield is still talked about in the corridors of South Block. That the country’s arms acquisition process still remains long-winded and corruption-prone is a different story.
But coming back to Fernandes, from the Pokhran-II nuclear tests, Operation Parakram and the Kargil conflict to the creation of the Nuclear Command Authority, Strategic Forces Command and Andaman Nicobar Command, he was involved with all during his stint as the Raksha Mantri from March 1998 to May 2004.
"There was this passion in Fernandes to improve the lot of jawans posted in harsh climates and terrains, with whom he would chat with easy familiarity at Bara Khanas during frequent visits to forward areas. He was much more involved in matters military than either his predecessor Mulayam Singh Yadav or successor Pranab Mukherjee as defence minister," said a retired senior official.
Several controversies, of course, dogged Fernandes. He was forced to step down as defence minister for seven months in 2001 after the "Operation West End" sting by Tehelka into murky arms deals, with even his party president and close associate Jaya Jaitly figuring in the tapes.
Later, the UPA government referred as many as 39 defence deals — 25 emergency procurements connected to Operation Vijay at Kargil in 1999, including the infamous coffins, and 13 to the Tehelka expose — to the CBI after it came to office in 2004. But nothing much came out of them.
Earlier, just over a month after assuming charge as the defence minister in 1998, Fernandes publicly declared China to be "potential threat No. 1", which unnerved the country’s foreign policy mandarins, though it reflected the defence establishment’s concerns. After unambiguous prods from the Vajpayee PMO and the MEA, Fernandes backtracked and made conciliatory noises to placate the furious Chinese dragon.
Then, in December 1998, the government sacked the then Navy chief Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat for ostensibly defying government directives after a messy public spat between him and Fernandes over the secretive "Operation Leech" and other issues.
Though many pending reforms like integration of the armed forces and opening defence production for the private sector were executed during his tenure, Fernandes could not push through the crucial step of creating the chief of defence staff (CDS) post despite himself being keen on it. The CDS post remains missing in action.
Throwing Coca Cola out of India
People in Muzaffarpur still remember the first time George Fernandes won the 1977 Lok Sabha polls from there. He was serving time in jail, arrested in June 1976 on charges of procuring dynamite sticks to blow up government establishments and railway tracks.
“His name for the Lok Sabha election was suggested by Jayaprakash Narayan, the leader of the 1974 students’ movement in Bihar. George had been arrested from Kolkata and police had brought him to Muzaffarpur. It was because of his work for the students, trade unions and the downtrodden that people of the constituency voted him for the Lok Sabha when he was in jail,” said Harendra Kumar, an old associate of Fernandes.
He would win from this Bihar town four more times, the last time in 2004. People here fondly recall the role he played in setting up Indian Drugs and Pharmaceuticals Ltd and Kanti Thermal Power Station in the area.
Surendra Kumar, another close aide, recalled how the decision to kick out Coca-Cola from the country was taken at a meeting in Muzaffarpur. “The district was reeling under acute shortage of drinking water. The then district magistrate had served him Coke. That infuriated him and the company had to leave the country under different sections of Foreign Exchange Regulation Act,” he said.
The writer is an economist
George Fernandes’ passionate trade union work helped mute violent conflict in democratic India
George Fernandes was one of the most vivid characters in the Indian political landscape from the 1960s onwards. He was a passionate believer in worker unions and in the socialist order. Among the cohort of laid-back political activists those days, Fernandes was a fireball — articulate, courageous and outspoken. While some of that passion got diluted with increasing engagement in formal politics, his commitment to old-fashioned democracy and socialism could never be dampened. He was a workers’ man, who, along with unionised hotel waiters, hawkers, and workers from the transport sector, could bring Bombay to a halt. In 1974, Fernandes famously led the largest railway strike that India has ever seen, which Prime Minister Indira Gandhi responded to by arresting or detaining thousands of trade unionists.
Fernandes was also a fearless dissenter. He was an anti-Emergency crusader. He spent the Emergency years in prison and even contested the 1977 elections from there. He won by a huge margin. The Janata Party was then elected to power and he was made Industries Minister in the government led by Morarji Desai.
But power corrupts. His induction into formal politics did not sit well with his personality or his actions. As Defence Minister, Fernandes was embroiled in the Kargil coffin scam. The Tehelka expose on the murky defence deals of the National Democratic Alliance forced him to resign.
But his downfall is not how we should remember Fernandes. We should remember him because he belonged to an era where leaders represented economic groups rather than castes or families. We should remember him because while at present there are many political and social leaders who may term themselves as being of the people, Fernandes was truly a man of the people.
And we should remember him because the worker in India today, whether in the formal or informal sector, is under threat. Unions face challenges right from getting themselves registered. The recent proposal to amend the Trade Unions Act of 1926 was met with protests — unions said that the government was trying to interfere in their functioning. In this era, we should remember stalwarts like Fernandes who understood that unless workers, like other professionals, are able to assert and organise power and negotiate the terms of their employment, there will be feudalism.
Worker unions were not only a vital institution for democratic India to thrive, but it was due to their propagation, aided by people such as Fernandes, that violent conflict was muted. His passing should be a reminder to support existing unions and build more unions.
Fernandes felt betrayed by Nitish, reveal letters
Akshaya Mukul The Times of India Dec 05 2014
In the manuscripts section on the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library in a quiet corner lie the private papers of once-fiery socialist leader George Fernandes. They are yet to be catalogued and put into neat boxes.A closer examination over two days reveals that these files have nothing from Fernandes' tumultuous years from the 1960s, 70s, his leadership of a railway strike, Emergency years, the Baroda Dynamite case or even controversies of the last two decades like the sacking of Vishnu Bhagwat, the Tehelka episode or even the coffin scam.
A major chunk of the Fernandes papers concerning his public and private life remain under the safekeeping of his family, leaving the period between late 1990s to 2009 available for scrutiny . But even here one can discover some rare gems. Like Fernandes being asked by the archbishop of Delhi: `How about your reconciliation with church and god?' Or the bit where Fernandes hits out at party colleague Nitish Ku mar in a 2009 letter to old socialist as sociate Kumar Aurangabadkar: “What you mention about Nitish is correct. I brought that fellow but he went on to see that I am sidelined.“ Further research yields another an other letter the same year where Fernandes wrote to JD (U) president Sha rad Yadav about his desire to contest the Lok Sabha election from Muzaf farpur because as a “socialist I am against entering Rajya Sabha.“
The running theme of Fernandes' papers remains his enmity with Indira Gandhi specifically and Congres in particular. In one letter of June 2005 to R.S.S. chief K S Sudarshan, Fernandes admonishes him for praising Indira Gandhi. “I cannot understand how the R.S.S. can admire a person who went to the extent of saying that her Emergency rule meant that even the right to life had been withdrawn as Hitler had done in Germany ,“ he wrote. Fernandes kept the pressure on the Gandhi-Nehru family , be it sending a letter from Sten Lindstrom, Swedish police officer and prime in vestigator in the Bofors case, to the then PM Manmohan Singh seeking his help or writing to Italian home minister Giuliano Amato, a socialist, to catch Ottavio Quattrocchi of Bofors fame.
Among the hundreds of paper, most of them letters to various UPA ministers seeking help for his constituents, there is one from former US there is one from former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld stating, “It was with dismay that I read press reports indicating that you had not received proper treatment at US airports in 2002 and 2003. I regret that such incidents occurred.“ Fernandes thanks him for his “sentiments“ and talks of how the two closely worked to strengthen the bilateral relationship.