One of the more iconic photos of George Fernandes, one that represented him for a generation, is of the socialist leader in chains, his arms aloft, hair dishevelled, an almost rakish smile on his face. Through the 1960s and ‘70s, Fernandes — who died on Tuesday at 88 — was one of the most prominent socialists and trade unionists in the country. In the Socialist Party, he organised railway workers. In 1967, he defeated S K Patil, a prominent Congress leader to enter the Lok Sabha from Bombay. Anti-Congressism and socialism are the two strands that defined Fernandes’ career. And in the near half-century he was active in politics, it is the ebb and flow of these two ideological inclinations that defined him.
By the time Fernandes was implicated in the Baroda Dynamite Case in 1974 during the country-wide railway strike, he was already a household name, a firebrand hero to many a young idealist. When Emergency was declared in 1975, Fernandes went underground, organising people across India against authoritarianism. Post Emergency, as the Minister for Industry in the Janata Party government, he was responsible for driving Coca Cola out of the country, his
suspicion of global capital aglow.
After the Janata split, as V P Singh and Mandal politics claimed the anti-Congress space, Fernandes receded from the spotlight. And with the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, Fernandes’ anti-Congressism seemed to trump his avowed secularism and radicalism. He was both NDA convenor and defence minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government, despite its aggressive agenda of economic liberalisation. In Parliament, Fernandes defended the then Gujarat government in the aftermath of the post-Godhra riots in 2002. For those who admired the Lohia-ite socialist, this represented a denting of his image as a radical icon. The shades of the old George, though — charming, affable and able to connect with the young — were visible again when he interacted with soldiers.