George Fernandes is at the crossroads of his political career. His isolation within the Janata Dal (United) is complete. He has been pushed to the periphery by party president Sharad Yadav and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, the powerful duarchy within the JD(U). Today, Fernandes is weighing the option of reviving his old Samata Party to stay afloat, in the hope that a fluid political scenario could lead to a realignment of forces and help him bounce back.
Fernandes, more than any other politician, has defined the word ‘maverick’. He migrated from Karnataka to Mumbai and after years of struggle, he took to trade union politics where he developed his aggressive image. He shot to national fame when he defeated Congressman SK Patil in the 1967 Lok Sabha elections. Despite losing his security deposit in the subsequent polls, Fernandes, an avowed Lohiaite socialist, continued to remain in spotlights as a trade union leader. In 1974, he led the railway strike and his exploits as an underground activist during the Emergency made him one of the symbols of the anti-Indira Gandhi, anti-Emergency movement. His popularity was at an all-time high in 1977 when he won the Muzaffarpur Lok Sabha seat in Bihar. Yet another defeat in 1980 from his native Karnataka did not deter his spirit. He shifted to Bihar from where he has been contesting for the last two decades.
During his 50-year-long career, Fernandes has been part of countless political splits, mergers, alliances and the creation of new parties. Each time, the fork-tongued George has managed to give ideological colour to his changing positions. In 1979, he was the first to raise the bogey of ‘dual membership’ — seeking to get Jan Sangh members of the Janata Party to sever their links with the RSS. When Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani refused to oblige the socialists, who were in the forefront of the demand, Fernandes became key to toppling the first non-Congress government at the Centre. He did this in a style that has no parallel. One day he was defending Morarji Desai’s government in the Lok Sabha, the next day he was walking out of the party with Charan Singh. Giving a burial to his mentor, Ram Manohar Lohia’s core philosophy — anti-Congressism — he did not seem to blink at being part of a formation that had the support of Indira Gandhi.
Not many leaders from the socialist clan or among the communists or the Congress could match his outbursts against the communal politics pursued by the Sangh parivar. That was, until the BJP toppled the VP Singh government on the Ayodhya issue. In the ensuing years, the Janata parivar split many times and the malleable Fernandes, along with Nitish Kumar, floated the Samata Party. He made yet another ideological u-turn by becoming a major partner of the BJP-led NDA.
During the NDA rule, Fernandes emerged as a strong defender of the RSS, even seeking to build bridges between the BJP and the RSS whenever Vajpayee got into trouble with the RSS. Even when his BJP colleagues were reluctant to come out openly in support of Narendra Modi after the Gujarat riots, Fernandes was out to defend him. After his associate Jaya Jaitly was caught on camera in a sting operation, Fernandes resigned citing moral grounds. But within a few months, he was back in the Vajpayee cabinet, much before the inquiry committee had reached any conclusion.
It was natural for Fernandes to be pushed out of the JD(U). The Sharad Yadav-Nitish Kumar duo does not need him to run Bihar, or to consolidate their OBC-Muslim vote-bank. Despite the BJP being the junior ally of the party in the state, the JD(U) has been assertive and would not like to yield space to the BJP in any manner. Of late, the JD(U) has been taking stances independent of the BJP. It is aware that if the BJP gets back to its Hindutva politics, the JD(U) runs the risk of losing its Muslim support.
So is this the end of the road for Fernandes? The man does not think so. He has already made it clear that he would support Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party in the forthcoming assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. Their relations have been good despite them being in different camps. The two leaders have similar responses towards the Lohia brand of socialism — anti-Congressism and caste-based politics. Yadav, too, has taken the support of the Congress in running UP twice. He has been soft towards the BJP despite earning the sobriquet of ‘Maulana Mulayam’ for championing the interests of Muslims.
Fernandes’ JD(U) may not have a political base in UP today, but his proposed Samata Party could always tie-up with smaller parties like the Apna Dal. Support from Mulayam Yadav can give him a small window to operate from. Yadav is aware that his support base among the Muslims is dwindling. With the Congress making overtures towards Muslims and Mayawati enjoying a formidable support from Dalit Muslims, it’s not going to be easy for him to bank on his Yadav-Muslim votes. He will have to try hard and work on new equations to remain a dominant force in UP and play a major role at the Centre in the next round of elections.
Fernandes is well entrenched within the NDA as its convenor and has a good rapport with the Sangh parivar. He can play a vital role in shaping the new formation. He is not quite done yet with his brand of political callisthenics.