The posthumous Padma Vibhushan to George Fernandes is a recognition by the present Government that he’s one of the very few leaders from the opposition who laid the foundation for a non-Congress Government at the Centre. It was the fierce and uncompromising tenacity of George Fernandes and his personal equation and credibility with opposition leaders that helped forge coalition Governments, the first V.P. Singh led coalition Government and the more stable NDA coalition from 1996-2004. What was remarkable was that born into a Christian family in Karnataka, he became a leader not only in Mumbai but also in Bihar and at a time when there was no electronic media or social media to enable quick outreach. His life was a continuous fight, a fight for the under privileged, a fight against an authoritarian Indira Gandhi led Congress, a fight against corruption and as a Defence Minister showed no hesitation in dismissing from service the then Chief of Naval staff Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat.
A fierce loyalty to the poor and deprived was reflected in having the gates to his official bungalow removed when some visitors were turned away. This empathy extended to one and all, coming back late one night he found his pet dog sleeping on his bed and rather than disturb her, he simply laid a sheet on the floor and slept there.
He believed in doing all his personal chores himself and was stickler to washing his own clothes and would do so every evening after he got back from work and many a time important discussion with visitors would be in his bathroom, while he was busy washing clothes!
He always admired the Chinese because they come down heavily on the corrupt and instituted the death penalty for this crime and said unless we adopt strict measures ourselves then we would never be able to stamp out this menace. He had a rather dramatic manner of conveying how corruption flourished across parties and leaders in the system and which he described as the “balance of blackmail”.He would say that when two leaders of different parties met, one would say to the other, “this is what I know of you and this is what you know of me, isiliye main bhi chup, tumbhi chup” and dramatically closed his lips, putting his fore finger to them showing silence.
His distaste and dislike for the Nehru Gandhi family was not borne out of any personal likes or dislikes, rather the harm that he intensely believed that it caused to the country. While propping up V.P. Singh as a Prime Ministerial candidate in 1998 elections he famously said “even if there were no V.P. Singh, we would have to create one”. The first successful experiment of the NDA, holding together a disparate coalition is a testimony to the respect he enjoyed amongst everyone, owing to his selfless commitment to opposition unity. In fact even after losing the confidence vote in March 1999 he was able to persuade Mulayam Singh Yadav not to support a Sonia Gandhi led Government.
It is a natural propensity for any leader particularly a prominent leader like him to showcase their altruistic actions. He never made a song and dance about what he did. Every Christmas, sponsored by his brother in Canada, all the Jawans in Siachen would get a plum cake each from Koshy’s bakery in Bangalore and he himself would be with them without any public fanfare, an aberration today. The various quarters adjacent to his bungalow provided refuge to Burmese political refugees and those in need, but again without any publicity.
He shunned publicity as regards his private life to the extent that he never bothered to clarify or share with press the true facts of the Tehelkasting, for which he was pilloried. The so-called ‘Coffingate Scam’, the procurement of coffins on an emergent basis for transporting dead bodies for the Kargil dead, incurred an expenditure of less than two crores, the transaction being cleared at the Joint Secretary official level and without any reference to the Minister. But the opposition lit upon him like a pack of wolves and he never bothered to explain the true facts and on it fell upon his close friend R.V. Pandit to bring out the facts in a small booklet.
He was a rare breed among leaders who even after having scaled the heights of political success, his actions were geared towards selfless motives and he passed Abraham Lincoln’s test of character, “nearly every man can face adversity, to test a man’s character give him power”, a refreshing contrast in today’s times.
Upamanyu Hazarika is a Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court and represented George Feranandes in the 2001 Tehalka sting case