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Did he build his own coffin?

The humiliating defeat of George Fernandes at the hands of Sharad Yadav in the elections for the presidentship of the JD(U) could well mean the end of the road for him, writes Pankaj Vohra

india Updated: Apr 17, 2006 00:19 IST

The humiliating defeat of NDA convener George Fernandes at the hands of his long-time socialist colleague, Sharad Yadav, in the elections for the presidentship of the Janata Dal (United) could well mean the end of the road for this veteran politician, who has been on and off the political centrestage for the last four decades. Once considered the favourite disciple of late Ram Manohar Lohia, Fernandes turned out to be one socialist who never hesitated to compromise on his ideological beliefs if it meant furthering his own political career. In many ways, his commitment to the socialist ideology was as brittle as L.K. Advani’s belief in the Hindutva philosophy of the Sangh parivar.

In fact, there are several parallels between the two leaders, who, in the end, were virtually forced out of the presidentship of their respective parties because the rank and file found them wanting in their desire to implement the basic ideological line. Both used emotions and passions to expand their support base and, in the end, both let down their own electoral constituencies in order to further their own prospects. Fernandes’ defeat could also mean that the meeting ground between the JD(U) and the BJP, which formed the NDA’s core, may not remain as strong.

The JD(U), under Sharad Yadav and with the backing of Nitish Kumar, may not necessarily take the lenient view that Fernandes often took of the BJP, even if it meant compromising on ideology. Similarly, Rajnath Singh, as the BJP chief, has too many internal problems to be playing second fiddle to Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, both at the fag end of their political careers. Singh is a political survivor and has inherited his political cunning from Advani, so he will have no qualms about changing track if the need arises. But Sharad Yadav is a seasoned socialist who cannot be easily swayed by the lure of glamour and power and is likely to adhere to his socialist beliefs rather than flirt with parties with whom an alliance will not benefit his organisation.

In any case, the Sharad-Nitish tie-up means that the Yadav-Kurmi combination at the head of the OBC political formulation may not work in Bihar and perhaps elsewhere too, if it is able to extend its influence in other states. This also means that the BJP, which was perhaps hoping to gain in Bihar with Fernandes as the JD(U) president, may now have to settle to a role that will be secondary to the JD(U) if it wants to remain in power in the state. Sharad Yadav is also a feared opponent for several others, including Lalu Yadav and Mulayam Singh, and has evolved in politics after his political apprenticeship under a number of top leaders, including Devi Lal, who was not part of the socialist stream.

But coming back to Fernandes, his career graph has shown that his last stated position was ideologically far removed from what Lohia would have wanted him to do in national politics. For Lohia, anti-Congressism was not as important as his hatred for the communal politics represented by the Sangh parivar. The way Fernandes has abandoned the Lohia philosophy in the past few years demonstrated that he had no regard left for the man who was his mentor and who also shaped the political careers of lakhs of socialists, including Madhu Limaye and Raj Narain.

But then, those who have watched Fernandes change colours should not be surprised that he has deviated from his beliefs and that too, at the cost of those who trusted him. After coming on the national centrestage following his sensational victory over Congress veteran S.K. Patil from Bombay South in 1967, Fernandes did little for the port and dock workers and the trade union supporters who carved out his victory. He let them down as he moved ahead with his political ambitions. He also let down the railwaymen, whose leader he was, and to this date, families of those who were sacked or had to leave have not forgiven him for the desertion of their cause.

Fernandes then took to violence and was involved in the Baroda dynamite case and after remaining underground for several months, was finally arrested during the Emergency. When elections were held again, he didn’t go back to Bombay or Karnataka (from where he lost an election subsequently) but pulled off his victory from Muzaffarpur in Bihar. It was the socialist vote bank nurtured by Lohia, Jai Prakash Narayan and Karpoori Thakur that came in handy and he became a minister in the Morarji government. Needless to say, he was of no help to the coal workers who supported him and continued with his flip flop politics

When Limaye and Raj Narain raised the pitch for giving up of dual membership by erstwhile Jan Sangh workers in the Janata Party, he watched from the sidelines. Then he defended Morarji Desai on the floor of the House before shifting to Charan Singh the very next day to ensure the fall of the Janata Party government. By siding with Charan Singh, he virtually accepted the leadership of Sanjay and Indira Gandhi, whose support was needed to keep the government afloat.

The story of flip flops continued. He spent sometime in political wilderness but returned when V.P. Singh assumed power. He attacked the BJP relentlessly and accused it of fanning communal trouble. But once Vajpayee was in the saddle, he made peace with the party and became the NDA convener. In this role, he continued to play second fiddle to the BJP and did not raise an eyebrow when close friend L.K. Advani was made deputy PM. He was conscious that Vajpayee had violated the coalition dharma by promoting his own partyman and he should have been in the number two position. But his position had become so vulnerable that he had to depend on the BJP’s support to remain the NDA convener and the JD(U) chief, and so he accepted the decision.

Now that the Sharad-Nitish combine has demonstrated that it will call the shots in the JD(U), Fernandes’ political future has become hazy. The Sangh,  which supported him, is itself locked in internal battles. It is to be seen what Fernandes will do next. For a man who has never helped those who have helped him and who has a history of flip flops in politics, extending an olive branch to the Congress cannot be out of the realm of possibility. Between us.