George Fernandes was the last of the larger-than-life figures of Indian politics. George saab, as he was affectionately referred to, had a distinct career graph, making the transition from a would-have-been priest to a fire-brand trade union leader in Mumbai and to a grave cabinet minister.
Fernandes served as a Union minister in three major ministries — Industries (1977) , Railways (1989) and finally, Defence in the Vajpayee cabinet. During the Vajpayee period, in an unusual pattern, Fernandes was swown in twice as the raksha mantri (RM). The first time was in March 1998, when he served for about three years and stepped down in March 2001 due to allegations of financial impropriety. He was re-inducted in October that year after being cleared of the charges and served as the RM till May 2004. Despite the many controversies associated with him, he will be remembered as an effective and empathetic minister who was well-regarded by the military fraternity. The man with the rumpled kurta also maintained an unruffled demeanor and demonstrated quiet determination, when required.
Fernandes’s tenure in the defence ministry was eventful in a wide-spectrum manner. India declared itself a nuclear weapon power in May 1998 and a year later, the Kargil War, conducted against a nuclear backdrop, tested India’s restraint and resolve. A major review of the management of India’s defence and military preparedness was undertaken post Kargil and it is a different matter that many of the truly transformative changes did not take place as envisioned.
One of the major controversies when Fernandes was RM was the dismissal of the naval chief — an unhappy punctuation in India’s civil-military relations. Subsequently, the 9/11 terror in New York and the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001 saw the Indian military being mobilised as part of Operation Parakram. While Minister Fernandes may not have been visible, a senior officer recalled: “He was a steadying presence during that tumultuous period.”
What is the most appropriate metric in assessing a cabinet minister in the Indian context — particularly in the defence portfolio — when major policy decisions are often taken by the prime minister of the day? A useful yardstick is the degree to which the minister has been able to enhance Indian military capability in a tangible manner; ensure speedy decision-making by the bureaucracy with its octopus-like tentacles; and be able to relate to the soldier.
Keenly aware of the limitations of his office with the appointment of Brajesh Mishra as the powerful NSA and PS to the PM and the austerity measures often invoked by his colleague, Jaswant Singh, then finance minister, Fernandes made his mark in an unobtrusive manner. His better-known achievement was to send the indecisive junior babus to the icy Himalayas so that they could experience the hardship faced by the soldier first-hand and thereby hasten the procurement of snow-mobiles.
Fernandes bemoaned the fact that what ought to have been a routine matter of defence procurement had become so convoluted and needed ministerial intervention. In like fashion, his decision to obtain appropriate coffins to ensure that the fallen soldier was at the very least given a dignified burial was welcomed by the military but it caused many aspersions to be cast by his political opponents. And like Santa Claus, Fernandes made an annual visit to Siachen in the winter months and distributed cake to the troops who adored him.
In yet another instance, when apprised of a major operational deficiency for the Navy, the minister overrode objections raised by the DRDO and authorised the induction of an imported missile defence system. He became the target of allegations of fiscal transgression after he had demitted office.
As the RM, Fernandes provided valuable support to the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) in convening the first Asian Security Conference in 1999 that envisaged the creation of a platform for defence ministers and military chiefs. He also played a critical role in enabling the IDSA to acquire its current permanent premises. One recalls that the file for financial approval was often stuck in the South Block-North Block labyrinth and a subtle “RM desires…” input would hasten the process.
Apart from his inflexible choice of sitting in the front seat of the car and in the economy section of an aircraft, an abiding image is that of Fernandes insisting on washing his clothes himself. Once at a conference in Singapore, the RM wanted to go over a speech he had to deliver the next day. It was late at night and two of us went to his room on the VIP floor of the hotel. We rang the bell hesitantly and waited. After a few minutes, Minister Fernandes opened the door — kurta sleeves rolled up and his hands full of soap. Asking us to be seated, he added: “Sorry. I will finish washing my clothes and join you.” This was truly a stoic socialist at work!