On first April,the last surviving doyen of the socialist movement in India,George Fernandes filed his nomination papers to contest the Lok Sabha elections from Muzaffarpur in Bihar. Accompanying him were veterans of old socialist movements like Ramjeewan Singh. The party he founded had denied him the ticket ostensibly on health grounds. However the crowds that turned out for him were by most accounts almost twice those for the other two candidates Jainarayan Nishad from Muzaffarpur and Munna Shukla from neighbouring Vaishali,both Janata Dal (United) candidates.
In this great drama in Muzaffarpur lie the ironies of the socialist movements history in India. In 1974,for the Jabalpur Lok Sabha seat,intense parleys were going on between the Opposition parties to put up single candidates against the Congress candidate. The other parties involved in these unity talks were the Swatantra Party,the Jan Sangh the formidable Bhartiya Lok Dal and the Socialist Party (which besides the Left was the only national party among them at that time as it had large bases in UP,MP,Bihar Maharashtra and a lesser pockets of influence in Karnataka,Rajasthan,AP and eastern India). The president of the Socialist Party was George Fernandes.
As the bye-election to the Jabalpur constituency approached,George turned to his trusted lieutenant,Raghu Thakur,who introduced George to a 27 year old engineering student who showed some promise in campus politics. He explained that this student had been reading up on socialist literature,particularly the speeches and writings of Ram Manohar Lohia,Madhu Limaye,George himself and others. The name of this student was Sharad Yadav.
When George met him the next day he was impressed by Sharads youthfulness,his apparent sincerity and potential,and the fact that he belonged to the backward castes. George promised Sharad two things. First,since as an opposition party the Socialists were perennially short of funds he would get all party leaders and workers to come and manage his election and to campaign for him. Two,keeping in mind the current talks between opposition parties,he would try to persuade all major opposition parties not to put up a candidate against him.
George delivered on both counts,overnight making Sharad into the first Janata Party candidate,three years before the party was actually formed and swept to power at the Centre in 1977. In a straight one-to-one fight,Sharad won. There has been no looking back,literally and figuratively,for Sharad Yadav ever since.
Ironically,Sharad Yadav who received his first election ticket from Socialist Party president George Fernandes (partly for his youth),has as president of the Janata Dal (U) denied George his last party nomination thirty five years later (ostensibly due to the latters old age)!
Sharad is one of the most brilliant tacticians in inner party politics in India today,and he will fall on his feet,whichever way Georges election goes. But I am sorry for that other friend,Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. Nitish came into politics through the Jaya Prakash Narayan students movement of the Seventies and was later picked by the great socialist leader of Bihar,former chief minister Karpoori Thakur. But all insiders know that for the past two decades his mentor and promoter,including to the job Nitish presently holds,is none other than George Fernandes. Will he campaign against George,will he use his state power to try and buy off Georges supporters,or try and discredit him through misinformation campaigns? Nitish is caught in the worst dilemma for a politician a no-win situation. If George loses,he walks away into the sunset,if he wins he proves his point. But Nitish knows only too well that either way,he himself will be the biggest loser.
Sharad and Nitish could perhaps have handled the situation better with more sensitivity and tact. But on hindsight they seem now like eager grandchildren in a hurry to bury a very,very reluctant grandfather. First announcing his name as party candidate from Muzzafarpur,and then arbitrarily replacing him with a BJP renegade who joined the party only the day before to get this ticket (himself older than George,with two heart bypass surgeries and all the many varied health problems associated with ageing and these intrusive surgeries).
Having stuck the knife in,they decided to twist it. It was let out that the ticket was being denied because of his health related problems which would not let him campaign this for a man once who won this very seat without a days electioneering. And if Georges health was considered so bad that he would not even be able to campaign then would not being sent to the Rajya Sabha (on the very first occasion) mean merely occupying a seat?
Many,including I,believe that without Georges stature,his trade union negotiating skills,his credibility among non-BJP parties,there would have been no NDA. Many friends and well wishers discussed these coming elections with George,many suggesting that it might be time to call it a day,given his health. To all those who know him or of him,this old battle-horse has fought many battles all his life,won some,lost some,but he has never shied away from one. If he wins he will have proved his point. If he loses,it will be remembered as the worst case of patricide in post-Independence Indias political history.
The writer is a former Union minister,journalist and diplomat
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