A hero of the working class, a star parliamentarian and a crusader against the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty — that was George Fernandes. Today, he is a shadow of the man who humbled the mighty SK Patil at the hustings in 1967, led the biggest ever railway strike in 1974 and returned to the Lok Sabha from Bihar’s Muzaffarpur in the 1977 elections, which he contested from prison.
The legend has faded. Or so it appears from George Saab’s undeniable political isolation amid allegations of graft in the Barak missile deal. Forget about the milling crowds, the dharnas or the chakka jaams he organised as a fiery trade unionist. Even statements of support have been scarce. Former Opposition leader in Maharashtra, Mrinal Gore is sympathetic: “George will never do something like this.” And Sharad Rao, a former Fernandes protege now with the NCP, declared, “He is an honest man but the people around him are not.”
But several of Fernandes’s peers from the socialist school have dissociated themselves from the ‘charismatic chameleon’ who quit Morarji Desai’s regime in protest against the Janata Party’s Jana Sangh/RSS components. Yet he had no qualms in becoming the NDA convenor and the RSS-BJP’s chief trouble-shooter during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s six-year-rule.
Fernandes earned nothing but opprobrium for the hatchet job he did on behalf of the Sangh Parivar after the Gujarat riots and Graham Staines’s murder, which he termed an ‘international conspiracy’ to topple the NDA. Nemesis might just catch up with him as he ventures out to set up new alliances, such as the one he is contemplating with old friend Mulayam Singh Yadav.
Fernandes is not going to find it easy to secure a place on the Samajwadi Party’s secular platform in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh. He is exploring political alternatives as he has become a stranger in his own party. He isn’t on talking terms with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and JD(U) president Sharad Yadav. The duo had teamed up against him in the Dal’s presidential election earlier this year.
There is an element of déjà vu in Fernandes’s search for greener pastures. He has often acted out of personal pique — while launching the Samata Party in the 1990s to teach Lalu Yadav a ‘lesson’ or while ranting against Nitish’s rule, which he says is worse than Lalu’s. “He has always led a double-life,” remarked a politician who had worked closely with him in the undivided Janata Dal.
A double-life? Ideologically, yes. His flip-flop on the RSS is only one instance. Fernandes had been a self-declared pacifist and a staunch votary of unilateral nuclear disarmament. But when the opportunity came, he wrested the Defence Ministry, promised originally to R.K. Hegde, and went on to champion Pokhran II — the saffron parivar’s nuclear shakti pradarshan.
When did the transformation take place? Talk to Fernandes’s former associates and they will tell you that his life has been full of contradictions. “Ideology is just a veneer. What drives him is his personal ambition,” remarked veteran socialist Surendra Mohan.
The personality traits that prevented Fernandes’s evolution from a politician to a statesman — despite his obvious credentials — were evident early in his career. At the Socialist Party’s Calcutta conclave in the 1960s, the man who now claims a patent to anti-Congressism, opposed Ram Manohar Lohia’s call to ‘join hands with everybody’ against the Congress. “This will dilute the socialist movement,” Fernandes had argued.
Lohia’s response remains part of socialist folklore: “Jo log Bombay mein apna muh kala karva ke aaye hain, wo hamey yahan updesh dey rahey hain (people who made compromises in Bombay are lecturing us over here).” The allusion to Fernandes’s joint trade union action with the Jana Sangh’s BMS was not lost on the gathering.
But in 1975, Fernandes supported his mentor and guru, Madhu Limaye’s proposal for a federal party with a common manifesto, programme and leadership. Forgetting his earlier resolve to promote socialist thought, Fernandes wondered about his future in a small party. “I am talented and have a lot of energy. Don’t you want to see your friend as Prime Minister?” he asked a colleague from Kerala. He had to be reminded that at that point of time, the Socialist Party in the state was large enough to nurse ambitions of throwing up a chief minister.
Limaye’s plan did not work. Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency a fortnight later, laying the foundations of the Janata experiment that Fernandes helped undermine in 1979, within hours of his memorable defence of Morarji in Parliament.
“He should have resigned on non-payment of productivity-linked bonus to railwaymen whose strike on the issue made him a leader in 1974,” said Surendra Mohan.
While Mohan refused to comment on the Barak deal, Sharad Yadav termed the CBI charges against Fernandes as ‘politically motivated.’ But he did not give the same benefit of doubt to Jaya Jaitley and the Samata Party’s then treasurer R.K. Jain who are accused of receiving kickbacks.
In the 2003 no-confidence debate in Parliament against Vajpayee on the Tehelka tapes, the Congress’s Jaipal Reddy relied heavily on Jain’s graphic description before hidden cameras of how Fernandes had over-ruled the advice of President APJ Abdul Kalam, then scientific advisor to the government, to push for the purchase of Barak missiles. “It is not my contention that the minister cannot overrule the advice of any scientific advisor…My question is how did Jain come to know about it?” asked Jaipal.
It took Fernandes over three years to respond to the query in the face of the CBI inquiry. But his claim of Kalam’s support for the deal stands rebutted. A case for a lie-detector test for the man who once called Indira Gandhi a ‘congenital’ liar?
With inputs from Sanjeev Shivadekar in Mumbai