George Fernandes: The man who kept the NDA together

Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByVinod Sharma
Jan 29, 2019 10:59 PM IST

One of the iconic images of Emergency is of George Fernandes in shackles, his arms raised high in protest.

By 1974, George Fernandes was already a popular and powerful Union leader and politician — in the 1967 elections, he defeated Congress strongman SK Patil from South Bombay, earning the sobriquet George the giant killer — but that year, he almost brought India to a halt. At his call, the All India Railwaymen’s Federation went on strike, bringing to a halt an already distressed economy.

Veteran socialist George Fernandes, who was the defence minister in the NDA government headed by the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee, passed away Tuesday, January 29, 2019, following a prolonged illness. He was 88.(PTI FILE PHOTO)
Veteran socialist George Fernandes, who was the defence minister in the NDA government headed by the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee, passed away Tuesday, January 29, 2019, following a prolonged illness. He was 88.(PTI FILE PHOTO)

The protest lasted a little over a fortnight before it was crushed by the Congress, but many believe it left the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi insecure and became a catalyst for the declaration of Emergency a year later, on June 25, 1975.

One of the iconic images of Emergency is of Fernandes in shackles, his arms raised high in protest.

Named after George V — the two share a birthday — Fernandes was a man of many parts, or contradictions. He supported the Janata Dal’s politics of Mandal but ended up by the side of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Kamandal (a euphemism for politics of Hindutva) in the twilight of his active political life.

A fiery speaker and a polyglot, his oratorical skills in Hindi were no less than that of the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He spoke extemporaneously and with equal flair in English, Hindi, Marathi and Kannada. He hailed from Kadur, Karnataka, but as a trade unionist and a practising politician worked across India, especially in Mumbai (then Bombay) and Bihar.

The railway strike bore testimony to Fernandes’ standing as a trade unionist. As a working class leader, he cut his teeth in Bombay in the 1950s and 1960s, inspired by Mangalorean trade union leader Placid D’Mello. It was for that reason that the maximum city — then known as the city of dreams — also became his launching pad to Parliament.

In his teens, Fernandes, from an orthodox Mangalore Roman Catholic family, spent time in a seminary to be trained as a Roman Catholic priest. That brush with religious learning didn’t last and he said in a television interview many years later that the gap between precept and practice in the church disillusioned him. He fled to Mumbai.

Among the many elections he won, his post-Emergency victory in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur in 1977 marked the peak of his career spanning over four decades. His continued incarceration while other Opposition leaders were freed made global headlines. His associates in the Socialist International (a global grouping of socialist parties) organised protests across Europe.

The Bihar seat was chosen for its tradition of electing socialist stalwarts from outside, such as Archarya Kriplani and Ashok Mehta. The electorate there kept the trend, returning Fernandes with a thumping margin merely on the strength of his cutouts in shackles (that iconic photograph again) and support from Jayaprakash Narayan.

Kept in jail in the Baroda Dynamite case (where he and others were accused of procuring dynamite to blow up railway tracks and government establishments to protest Emergency), he had no personal connect with Muzaffarpur. His socialist colleagues later joked: the Fernandes name sounded “alien” to voters who didn’t mind electing a “foreigner” to defeat the Congress.

Such was his charisma and connect with the middle classes and the youth at the time that many saw in him a potential prime minister. “He forever was on the move; half of his life spent in trains and planes,” said one of his proteges, Loktantrik Janata Dal leader Sharad Yadav (Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar is another protege). “In planes, he’d always take the back seat and busy himself with a book or some writing work. That embarrassed us as he was our leader but we sat upfront.”

Fernandes’ spartan lifestyle was reflected in his mouldy glasses, dishevelled hair, crumpled kurtas, and a pair of inexpensive slippers. The only thing ostentatious about him was his aura, his political ambition.

It was tragic, therefore, to witness his role in the collapse of India’s first non-Congress government. He battled heroically against Indira’s Emergency excesses, but facilitated her return to power by hastening the fall of Morarji Desai’s regime.

It wasn’t simply the collapse of a government; it was early death of the two-party system a durable Janata Party could have institutionalised after the Congress’s resounding 1977 defeat. The Janata potion, so to speak, was a communion of the socialist and the centre-right Jana Sangh (the predecessor of the Bharatiya Janata Party). With it sank the image and the credibility of Fernandes — who made a fiery speech backing Morarji in the day only to cross over to the latter’s bête noire, former Prime Minister Charan Singh, in the evening.

The no trust vote that got carried was brought by Singh in tandem with another socialist stalwart, Madhu Limaye. If Fernandes’ friend and associate, Jaya Jaitly, is to be believed, he didn’t join the ideological fight against the Jana Sangh leadership’s dual membership of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. He gave in to Limaye’s emotional blackmail invoking their years of friendship.

The account can’t be easily contested. Fernandes played a key role in the formation of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and perhaps is the only socialist heavyweight to have visited the Nagpur headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

He faded from public memory and public life after the NDA’s defeat in 2004. He last served as a parliamentarian as a Rajya Sabha MP between August 2009 and July 2010. Illness (Alzheimer’s) laid him low, although his eventual death, early on Tuesday, may have been brought about by swine flu and age-related illnesses. He was 88.

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