New Delhi: Crumpled Khadi kurta-payjama, a pair of cheap leather slippers, uncombed hair and a heavy old-fashioned plastic frame to hold his glasses was his typical trademark. His ordinary looks could not have got him noticed even in his home town Mangalore. But George Fernandes was no ordinary leader. A firebrand socialist and probably the last of pan-India leaders who kept fighting without a pause for the cause so dear to him.
Bungalow Number 3 on Krishna Menon Marg in New Delhi had no gates and no security personnel. It was open for all and houses all kinds of rebels — from Myanmar, Sri Lankan Tamil guerrillas to the northeast. One could walk in without any questions being asked. In one of the rooms lived Fernandes with no pretensions and always available. Authorities tried their best to safeguard the man who was responsible for the nation’s security as its defence minister, but gave up as nothing could shackle Fernandes.
And it was his picture in shackles that created political ripples in India in 1977. No one knows for sure why he opted to file his nomination from Muzaffarpur in Bihar. He was still in prison. The Emergency imposed in 1975 by the India Gandhi government had been lifted. Most of political prisoners had been released, but not Fernandes who was facing charges of treason. Muzaffarpur did not know him much, but his picture in shackles which was taken around was enough to evoke sentiments and ensure Fernandes not only won the parliamentary election but in the process created a world record by emerging victorious by the margin of over 300,000 votes.
Born on June 3, 1930, George was the eldest of the six children in the Mangalorean Catholic family of John Joseph Fernandes and Alice Martha Fernandes. The family followed orthodox tradition and sent him to Bangalore at the age of 16 to be trained as a priest. The fighter in him came to the fore as he left Church within three years objecting to the system practiced as the reactors ate better food and sat at higher tables than the seminarians.
His decision to move to India’s financial capital Bombay (now Mumbai) at the age of 19 was to prove the turning point in his life. With no place to sleep, he often slept under the skies at a beach or streets, did odd works to survive until he got job as proofreader at a local newspaper. His association with trade union movement, which was very strong those days in Bombay, started around that time as he came into contact with veteran union leader Placid D’Mello and socialist stalwart Rammanohar Lohia. Fernandes rose through the ranks and became a prominent figure in the labour movement. His initiation in politics started as the rank outsider was elected to the Bombay Municipal Corporation in 1961.
Six years on, he was nominated by the Samyukta Socialist Party to challenge popular Marathi leader S.K. Patil of the ruling Congress party from South Bombay constituency during 1967 parliamentary polls. No one gave him the chance, but Fernandes dusted Patil to become a member of parliament and earning the nickname George the Giantkiller.
Fernandes virtually became a household name in 1974 in the entire country due to the troubles the masses faced when he led the nation-wide railway strike. India came to a complete standstill as the railway strike elicited support from various sectors including transport, and electricity related union. The strike lasted barely three weeks but was enough to instill a sense of insecurity in the then prime minister Indira Gandhi as protests did not stop as student unions led by veteran socialist Jaiprakash Narayan started the movement for change, resulting in the imposition of internal Emergency in 1975.
Opposition leaders across the country were arrested in overnight swoop and sent to prison while Emergency lasted for 19 month, but Fernandes continues to evade strike as he went underground and tried to take on the repressive regime through violent means. He along with some friends procured dynamite in Baroda with plans to blow up government offices at night to ensure there were no casualties. They also planned to rob a train used for carrying weapons.
Fernandes was finally arrested in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and charged with smuggling dynamite to blow up government establishments. The case came to be known as the Baroda dynamite case. He was moved to Delhi’s Tihar Central Jail and spent the next nine months in prison without being chargesheeted. He contested parliamentary election while still in prison after Emergency was lifted and fresh polls ordered and walked free only after the Indira Gandhi-led Congress government was defeated and thrown out of power for the first time since India became independent in 1947.
Fernandes was appointed industry minister in the first non-Congress government of the country, headed by Morarji Desai and made news by taking on American companies IBM and Coca Cola due to investment violations, forcing the two multinationals to pack up their business and leave India.
It has become known only now that his action against the two American multinationals could have been an act of revenge. The Wikileaks cables released recently suggest that Fernandes had sought financial help from the CIA for his fight against the Indira Gandhi regime, which he never got.
Fernandes became the railways minister when V.P. Singh formed the second non-Congress party government in 1989 and gifted to the nation the Konkan Railway project.
It was his fate that he was forced by political compulsions to join hands with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders Atal Bihar Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani. Fernandes was at the forefront of a fight that broke out in the Janata Party government as he wanted both Vajpayee and Advani to snap their ties with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). They refused leading to the downfall of the Morarji Desai government.
However, when the BJP formed the government in 1998 with help of regional allies, Fernandes who then headed the Samata Party was appointed the defence minister in the Vajpayee government, becoming the only Christian minister in the Vajpayee government. He was also made convenor of the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA). His tenure as the defence minister proved to be eventful. India conducted nuclear tests in 1998 and fought war with Pakistan in Kargil in 1999. He was also in the news for controversies like the Barak Missile scandal and Tehelka scandal forcing him to quit as the minister.
Some close aides of Fernandes were offered or given bribes in a fictitious defence deal which was a sting operation conducted by web portal Tehelka. He, however, emerged clean in an inquiry and was reappointed as the country’s defence minister, though the coffingate scam continued to haunt him. The defence ministry had ordered 500 coffins from the US during the Kargil war allegedly at a much higher price.
Fernandes also hogged limelight when he as the defence minister called China as India’s enemy number one.
Fernandes, however, started to fade away gradually after NDA was voted out of power in 2004. He fell out with his close associate Nitish Kumar and was forced to contest the Muzaffarpur seat as an independent in 2009 general elections. It was a consolation prize that Nitish Kumar, who was by now the Bihar chief minister, gave to his old rebel colleague when he did not put up any candidate against Fernandes when he filed his nomination for a Rajya Sabha by-election. He returned to parliament in 2009 in what turned out to be his swan song in politics.
The firebrand leader whose speeches created ripples and were listened to attentively by all and sundry in parliament was a pale shadow of what he was earlier. He could speak in 10 languages, namely Konkani, English, Hindi, Tulu, Kannada, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, Malayalam and Latin but remained silent most of the time and later stopped coming to parliament. He was detected to be suffering from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
His ex-wife Leila Kabir and son Sean Fernandes returned from US and took control of his house and life after a prolonged legal battle with other family members and Fernandes’ close associate Jaya Jaitley. Gates were fixed at 3 Krishna Menon Marg bungalow for the first time and security personnel were posted there. The entry of any outsider to the house where one could move freely was debarred.
Fernandes will turn 83 on June 3 this year but probably none will celebrate it. No one knows for sure or bothers to know any more where is he being kept by his family. All one knows now is that he is unable to move or talk anymore.