George Fernandes, a symbol of resistance to the Emergency, went on to become one of the most powerful trade union leaders in his time of the country.
A rebel with a cause, Fernandes, during his prime, frequently took up cudgels against the establishment and went on to serve as industries minister in Morarji Desai government (1977-1979), Railways minister in the VP Singh government (1989-90) and defence minister in the Vajpayee government (1998-2004).
Born in Mangalore on June 3, 1930, in a Catholic family, he was named George by his mother after King George V as both of them were born on the same date.
Fernandes’ teenage years were marked with struggle. At the age of 18, he chose to leave the seminary where he was sent to be trained as a Catholic priest and moved to Bombay in search of a job. Those days he spent his nights on the streets and his days as a worker at a hotel.
It is during this time that Fernandes, who was inspired by socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia, became actively involved with the trade union movement and the Socialist Party, which became the springboard for his political entry.
In the 1950s, Fernandes proactively took up the fight for the rights of industrial labourers working in hotels and restaurants and became the poster boy of the taxi drivers’ union.
He became a national figure overnight after defeating Congress leader SK Patil in the 1967 parliamentary elections, earning him the reputation of being a “giant killer”.
A major facet of his career is undoubtedly the role he played in organising the nationwide rail workers’ strike in 1974 as the president of All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF). The workers were incensed over the poor working conditions and the strike went on for 20 days, bringing the nation to a halt.
A staunch critic of Indira Gandhi, Fernandes was arrested in 1976 during the Emergency for allegedly attempting to blow up railway bridges, in what has come to be known as the Baroda Dynamite Conspiracy. The photograph of Fernandes and his fellow accused coming to the prison handcuffed and in chains accompanied by several policemen became a household image.
He spent the entire period of Emergency in jail and was not even released during the 1977 Lok Sabha elections. However, he fought from jail, and won the Muzaffarpur constituency, becoming a poster boy of the Janata Party.
Morarji Desai handed him the charge of the Industries Ministry and Fernandes made his mark immediately by forcing the exit of Coca-Cola and IBM as they had refused to dilute their stake in their Indian partners. His tenure as Railways Minister in the VP Singh Cabinet will be remembered for the introduction of the historic Konkan Railway.
However, he began to lose credibility after the Janata Party split. Initially, he backed the Morarji Desai government but defected to the rebel camp the next day.
He founded the Samata Party in 1994, which later allied with the BJP. Fernandes got a second shot at resurrecting his career after Atal Bihari Vajpayee entrusted him with the Defence Ministry portfolio.
Fernandes oversaw the Pokhran nuclear tests of 1998 and the Kargil war but his tenure came to a tragic end after the ‘coffin gate’ broke out and he stepped down as Defence Minister in 2004.
However, two commissions of inquiry absolved him in the case. His name was also dragged into the Barak Missile scandal and the Tehelka affair. Fernandes’ last presence in Parliament was as a Rajya Sabha member in 2009-2010 following which he slowly withdrew from public life owing to Alzheimers’ disease.