The end for George Fernandes, the 88-year-old firebrand socialist politician and hero of the Emergency, was tragic and lonely. Seven years ago, a court order placed him in the care of his estranged wife, Leila Kabir Fernandes, and his son, Sean, with whom he had parted ways over two decades earlier. After several applications to the court, his long-time companion, Jaya Jaitly, his brothers in Karnataka and old party workers were permitted to meet him on occasion. But the issue had become irrelevant by then. A physically debilitated Fernandes, a victim of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, was unable to converse or even recognise the faces of his old friends and companions.
The fragile invalid, whose breathing slowly ebbed away on Tuesday morning, was a far cry from the stormy petrel of the trade union movement who could bring the city of Mumbai to a complete halt by his call for a hartal back in the ‘60s. He was also the man behind the 20-day nationwide railway strike in 1974, which threatened to paralyse the country. In his heyday, Fernandes was a romantic figure and an inspiration for many, particularly during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, when he called for a violent overthrow of her dictatorial regime. Later in life, Fernandes changed parties and alliances, becoming close to the BJP, but he never lost his passionate belief in defending the underdog.
He was a man who rebelled against convention and the establishment, and he dressed and spoke accordingly. His kurtas were rumpled and grubby, his hair disheveled, petitioners of all sorts, including refugees from Myanmar and Tibet and LTTE activists, were free to walk in and out of his office without appointment. He never cared about security or the pomp of office and, though he held several important ministerial posts, he was a fish out of water.
Fernandes grew up in Mangaluru in a large, pious Catholic family. And, as the eldest son, his father sent him to a seminary to be trained for priesthood at the age of 16. Within two years, he was disillusioned by what he considered the hypocrisy of the Church, and he ran away to Mumbai. He slept on the benches of Chowpatty beach and became actively involved in the trade union movement — he later headed the taxi drivers’ union. His inspiration was trade unionist Placid D’Mello and socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia. In 1967, Fernandes, as the socialist candidate from South Bombay, stunned the ruling party by defeating Congress stalwart S K Patil, earning the title of “George, the Giant Killer’’.
Fernandes’s most famous phase was perhaps during the Emergency, when he became a symbol of resistance to Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian regime. Unlike most Opposition politicians, whom he accused of inaction or cowardice, Fernandes travelled the length and breadth of the country incognito, trying to rally support for the underground. He also galvanised his powerful socialist friends abroad to build up public opinion against Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.
Fernandes even espoused violence, provided it did not lead to casualties. A conspiracy was hatched in Baroda to blow up railway bridges and culverts. In reality, the ham-handed plots led to little actual physical damage on the ground. But the police hunted him down. His brother, Lawrence, was arrested and tortured repeatedly; actress Snehlata Reddy, a socialist friend and sympathiser, was picked up under MISA and ill-treated in jail despite her severe asthma. She died shortly after her release from jail. Both, however, steadfastly refused to disclose Fernandes’s whereabouts. He was eventually captured after a businessman involved in the Baroda dynamite conspiracy betrayed him.
His trial became a cause célèbre, with foreign correspondents flying down to cover it, while the Indian media was prohibited from reporting the proceedings. In a dramatic gesture at one point, Fernandes held up his chained hands and declared, “the chains I bear are symbols of the entire nation’’. When elections were called, Fernandes was still in jail. But he contested in absentia, at Jayaprakash Narayan’s insistence, from Muzaffarpur constituency in Bihar and won by over 3,00,000 votes, with students across India volunteering to campaign for him.
Oddly, then Prime Minister Morarji Desai appointed the capitalist-baiting Fernandes as Industries Minister in 1977. Not surprisingly, multinationals like IBM and Coca Cola were asked to leave the country. In 1979, when the Desai government faced a no-confidence vote in Parliament after Charan Singh broke away from the Janata Party with Congress support, Fernandes double-crossed. The first day, he made an impassioned speech defending the government, then did a complete U-turn the next day and attacked the former Jana Sangh leaders for their links to the RSS. He sided with Charan Singh, reportedly under pressure from socialist Madhu Limaye.
Fernandes was Railways Minister in V P Singh’s government between 1989 and 1990. In 1994, he was an ally of the BJP, and when A B Vajpayee became Prime Minister in 1998, Fernandes was appointed Defence Minister. By this time, the former socialists had split into different parties. Fernandes became the president of the Samata Party, with Nitish Kumar and Sharad Yadav. He had developed a close friendship with Vajpayee and was appointed NDA convener, because of which many former socialist admirers turned against him.
As Defence Minister, Fernandes’s record was mixed. He made 18 trips to the Siachen glacier to give moral support to jawans facing the biting cold and was always deeply concerned about the condition of the lower ranks of the Armed Forces. He was the Defence Minister when India carried out five nuclear bomb test explosions at Pokharan, and when the Pakistanis infiltrated the Kargil region and were later defeated by the Indian Army.
Later, following a sting operation by Tehelka magazine, Fernandes was accused of being involved in a defence scam. He resigned his ministership after the Congress raised a hue and cry, but was later brought back when an inquiry commission could find nothing incriminating against him. The Congress also tried to drag him into a row over the import of caskets, but he was absolved of wrongdoing.
After the UPA came to power in 2004, Fernandes’s decline began. His old colleague, Nitish Kumar, snatched control of the Janata Dal (United) and he was not even permitted to contest the Muzaffarpur seat, ostensibly on grounds of health. Fernandes contested as an independent in 2009, but the winner of eight Lok Sabha elections lost this time. The JD(U) later helped to make him a member of the Rajya Sabha.
Fernandes was forgotten in the last years of his life, but, after his death, many who had ignored him for long came forward to pay tribute.