George Fernandes had begun and ended his election journey in Muzaffarpur without a word spoken.
When he first contested from the seat in Bihar, a choice of socialist icon Jay Prakash Narayan (JP), in 1977, Fernandes, a crusader against Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, was in jail. When he contested his last Lok Sabha election in 2009 from Muzaffarpur as an Independent, on a poll symbol of “basket”, he was so ill that he could barely speak coherently. His supporters distributed pamphlets carrying his message, while Fernandes sat quietly in the front seat of his car.
He won by a big margin in 1977. Thirty-two years later, he barely managed to get 25,000 votes.
The firebrand socialist leader, recalled by the common people for his powerful speeches with an earthy touch, won from Muzaffarpur five times, aside from three times from Nalanda. But the most memorable election for Fernandes would always be 1977. After JP announced his candidature from Muzaffarpur, then a Congress turf, his wife Laila Kabir Fernandes and Sushma Swaraj, then a young Janata Party leader and now External Affairs Minister, were the main campaigners for him. “Hordes of posters of George Fernandes being in shackles filled vantage points of Muzaffarpur town. A vehicle carrying these posters was a main part of the campaign…the Emergency had been lifted (weeks earlier),” recalled Harendra Kumar, then a student who later contested unsuccessfully from Muzaffarpur after Fernandes shifted to Nalanda constituency.
Kumar, now a syndicate member BR Ambedkar Bihar University in Muzaffarpur, said that despite the presence of Opposition stalwarts such as Morarji Desai, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Jagjivan Ram, Sushma Swaraj remained the main campaigner for Fernandes alongside Laila Kabir in 1977. “At one time, when Jagjivan Ram was late, Sushma Swaraj kept speaking and retained the crowd until he arrived,” he said.
When Fernandes rebelled against the Janata Party leadership and contested on a Lok Dal ticket in 1980, he would often remind people of Muzaffarpur that they made him a victor even in his absence, without seeing him, or knowing his caste and religion, Kumar said.
A great votary of Hindi, he dressed simply in a kurta-pajama and could connect with people easily. Fernandes held nukkad (corner) meetings during campaigns and did not have much faith in big rallies —- barring the last few elections, he never got a “managed” crowd, unlike many other leaders, Kumar recalled. Pramod Kumar, a JP movement activist who later became a journalist, said, “Be it the Company Bagh ground or Chakkar Maidan in Muzaffarpur, they used to be packed whenever Fernandes addressed the crowd. He did face public wrath for leaving the Janata Party in 1980 but still managed to win…”
Pramod Kumar recalled how Fernandes once kept speaking at a public meet despite heavy stone-pelting. In 1977, he defeated Congress stalwart Niteshwar Prasad Singh, and in 1980 downed Janata Party candidate Digvijay Narayan Singh.