George Fernandes: India loses a socialist icon
George Fernandes (June 3, 1930 – January 29, 2019) was one of the most charismatic socialist leaders and his passing away after prolonged illness marks the end of the chapter of socialist politics of non-Congressism.Updated: Jan 29, 2019 23:53 IST
George Fernandes (June 3, 1930 – January 29, 2019) was one of the most charismatic socialist leaders and his passing away after prolonged illness marks the end of the chapter of socialist politics of non-Congressism.
He lived a meaningful life with many roles—innovative trade unionist, socialist campaigner, successful strategist, effective parliamentarian, efficient minister, and a pillar of support for democracy in south Asia.
His politics attracted admiration as well as criticism. But he remained one of the main architects of the politics of non-Congress coalitions after the passing away of Jaiprakash Narayan in 1979. He played a leading role in the formation of national coalition governments led by Morarji Desai (1977-80), Charan Singh (1980), VP Singh (1989-90) and Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1999-2004). But it was paradoxical that Fernandes, the erstwhile giant-killer, was seen to be marginalised and isolated in the later years of his otherwise heroic life.
Fernandes was born on June 3, 1930 as the first child of Alice and John Joseph Fernandes in Mangalore. After completing his secondary education, he was sent to a seminary in Bangalore to be trained as a Christian priest. But he left it after two years and went to Bombay to start working among the urban workers and the poor.
Dr Ram Manohar Lohia and Madhu Limaye mentored him from the 1950s when he began his public life as a trade union organiser under the leadership of De’ Mello. Fernandes entered the national stage in 1967 as “the giant killer” when he defeated eminent Congress leader and Union minister, SK Patil, in the fourth general election from the South Bombay seat.
From 1967, his stature continued to grow as he was elected national general secretary of the Samyukta Socialist Party in 1969 and president of the Socialist Party in 1973. All India Railwaymen’s Federation made him its national president in 1974, which gave him international recognition as a socialist labour leader.
Fernandes used the opportunity for radicalising the labour movement and organised a historical strike of the Indian Railways. It rattled the establishment and contributed to the imposition of Emergency on 26th June 1975 in conjunction with the JP Movement and the Allahabad high court judgement setting aside the election of then prime minister Indira Gandhi. It made Fernandes go underground and organise anti-Emergency resistance.
He was arrested with several other eminent persons after several months of nationwide hunt and put on trial for sedition in what became famous as the “Baroda Dynamite Case”.
But soon Emergency was withdrawn and Fernandes entered the Lok Sabha from Muzaffarpur with a margin of 300,000 votes and took oath as a Union minister in the first ever non-Congress government in the country. It made him a national hero and global icon of the movements for human rights and democracy.
His role as supporter of democratic movements in Tibet, Nepal, Myanmar, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and elsewhere was unparalleled. Fernandes will always be remembered as one of the most successful socialist parliamentarians who was elected nine times to Lok Sabha and once to Rajya Sabha between 1967 and 2019.
He held key portfolios in several non-Congress central governments, including industry, railways, communications and defence. He did not agree with the Nehruvian discourse of “left” and “right” in the political field and pursued the Lohia line of “non-Congressism”.
It made him an indispensable figure in all non-Congress political initiatives. It also led him to several paradoxical situations. His role in the fall of the Janata Party government (1980) and the first NDA government (1999-2004) at the Centre drew severe criticism from many quarters. He suffered loss of social base while trying to resist the politics of personality cult in the name of social justice in Bihar.
First Published: Jan 29, 2019 23:53 IST