If ever there was a prominent Indian politician who epitomised the phrase “bundle of contradictions,” it was none other than George Fernandes, former Union Defence Minister and nine-time member of the Lok Sabha, who passed away on the morning of January 29 at the age of 88, after having been bedridden for a few years with Alzheimer’s disease.
The son of a poor Christian from the South Kanara district in the Mangalore region of Karnataka, Fernandes gave up life in a seminary for a chequered career in socialist activism, rising to the pinnacle of his political career in the governments headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee – in which he served as Defence Minister for two terms between 1998 and 2004 during which period the Pokhran nuclear tests and the Kargil conflagration took place.
Having worked briefly as a proof-reading journalist in the Times of India newspaper, Fernandes organised unions of taxi drivers in Mumbai. He rose to prominence in 1967 when he electorally defeated the then Congress strongman S K Patil from the South Mumbai Lok Sabha constituency and earned for himself the description “George, the giant killer.” Four years later, he was not just humbled at the polls from the same constituency at a time when Indira Gandhi’s political career had peaked, but also forfeited his deposit. He never contested elections from Mumbai again.
Fernandes became the face of the anti-Emergency movement after he was jailed by the Indira Gandhi government for “provoking” railway locomotive workers to strike work in 1974. The picture of a defiant man in handcuffs, clad in kurta-pyjama, was splashed across posters. After the March 1977 general elections, he became Industry Minister in the Morarji Desai government after he won the Muzaffarpur Lok Sabha seat in Bihar. He compared businesspersons with vermin at a meeting of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
Fernandes’ best-known act during this stint was when he threw out computer multinational IBM (formerly International Business Machines) and Coca-Cola for not diluting their shareholding in their Indian associate companies. In a 1988 interview with the Indian Express, he said: “People keep saying that I threw out Coke but I was well within law to ask them about the formula they were so secretive about. The Indian legislation stated that in such a situation I could either ask them to go out or dilute their equity to 49 per cent and they opted for the first.”
Subsequently, the same ardent exponent of so-called swadeshi economics pushed through a controversial technical collaboration agreement between German engineering giant Siemens and the public sector power equipment manufacturer, Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd (BHEL). The agreement was pushed through in the teeth of opposition from BHEL’s employees.
The same Industry Minister then enlarged the list of items, the manufacture of which was reserved for small-scale industrial units. The same Fernandes did not utter a word of protest when the Vajpayee government dismantled this “small is beautiful” industrial policy. He sharply criticised the P V Narasimha Rao government for having “surrendered” India’s economic sovereignty to the World Trade Organisation but simultaneously claimed that the Vajpayee government had “no alternative” but to continue with the economic policies pursued by its predecessor regime. This kind of double-speak was typical of the man.
Perhaps the most blatant about-turn performed by Fernandes took place in July 1979 when he switched his allegiance from Morarji Desai to Charan Singh. In an interview with this writer, he had argued that although at that time he was strongly in favour of Morarji Desai, he was not aware that many of his compatriots (such as Madhu Limaye and Biju Patnaik) had decided to switch sides and lent their weight behind Charan Singh. At a particular juncture, Fernandes said he had just “stopped thinking.”
For a decade thereafter, Fernandes did what he was arguably best at – playing the role of an antagonist to those in positions of power. He returned to the Union government when he became Railways Minister in the 1989-90 Janata Dal government led by Vishwanath Pratap Singh. In this period, work was expedited on building the Konkan Railway connecting Mumbai to Mangalore.
In 1994, after the Janata Party broke up, Fernandes set up the Samata Party, which tied up with the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) and he became the convenor of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition.
Few Indian politicians have justified their ideological somersaults in the blasé manner in which Fernandes did. In 1996, he was unfazed when it was pointed out to him that he had flayed the BJP for its role in the demolition of the Babri masjid. Had Vajpayee not said that December 6, 1992, was the saddest day of his life, Fernandes would rhetorically ask those who criticised him for joining hands with BJP.
One night in May 1974, Fernandes had remained awake in his cell in Tihar Jail writing a blistering critique of Indira Gandhi’s decision to conduct nuclear tests. He wrote: “…all talk of a bomb can be just so much bombast…”
When reminded about his days as a peacenik, Fernandes said that in July 1996 he had realised that the world’s five nuclear super-powers had ganged up against India and were trying to impose the unfair Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) on us. That was when he realised that “if a nation’s security is endangered…then there is no question of whether we are able to feed our people or not,” he told me.
What surprised many then was how he became a close confidante of Vajpayee and his trouble-shooter. Whether it came to placating a recalcitrant Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu or a sulking Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, there was none in the Vajpayee government who could intervene the way Fernandes was able to.
How did he become so important to Vajpayee? Fernandes was the first non-Hindu who was featured on the cover of the Republic Day issue of Panchajanya, the official publication of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. He gave a certificate of innocence to the Bajrang Dal after Australian missionary Graham Staines and his sons were burnt to death in Odisha, while claiming that he had only repeated what had been told to him by others.
In March 2001, Fernandes was forced to resign as Defence Minister after two journalists from Tehelka, masquerading as arms dealers, came into his official residence and discussed financial transactions with Jaya Jaitley, his close associate and an office-bearer of the Samata Party. Seven months later, Fernandes was back as Raksha Mantri in South Block ostensibly to uphold the morale of the country’s armed forces when tensions along the border had intensified. The same Mamata Banerjee who had parted ways with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance on account of the Tehelka sting operation, issued a statement from Kolkata welcoming Fernandes’ return to the Cabinet even before he was formally re-inducted as Defence Minister.
Many in India believe one should not talk ill of the departed, but one will not be departing from form by stating that Fernandes’ presence in the Vajpayee government contributing hugely to the latter’s liberal and secular image. On a personal note, to describe my ambivalent attitude to the departed political leader I met over a dozen occasions as a journalist, I am reproducing here a letter I wrote him on June 30, 2004.
Shri George Fernandes,
Member of Parliament (Lok Sabha)
3 Krishna Menon Marg
New Delhi – 110 001
Dear Shri Fernandes,
This is with reference to your letter dated June 14 sent to me in response to what I had written in an article published in The Economic Times on Monday June 14, 2004. Let me first apologize for the delay in responding to your letter as I was out of station.
The sentences in the above article that seem to have offended you read as follows: “In the eyes of many, Bangaru Laxman and George Fernandes were “guilty” of acting in an improper manner. But no FIR was ever filed against them. Laxman’s wife and Fernandes were elected as MPs…”
In your letter to me, you ask me to let you know “what crimes I am guilty of and what is the improper manner in which I have acted”. You also suggested that as a concerned citizen, I should “file a charge sheet against me”.
I believe you have misunderstood what I wrote and misinterpreted my statement. The word guilty was placed within inverted commas to suggest that there are some who believe that you did not act in a proper manner by allowing two journalists engaged by the Tehelka website who were masquerading as arms dealers to enter your official residence and discuss various financial transactions with Ms Jaya Jaitley, who is your close associate and an important functionary of the political party to which you belong.
It is a fact that no FIR has been lodged against either you or Shri Bangaru Laxman. I am aware that any citizen of this country, concerned or otherwise, can file an FIR against anyone who she/he believes has committed a crime. The question of me filing a “charge sheet” against you does not arise.
I hope I have been able to make my position clear.
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta