Oscar Fernandes: Multiple-time MP, minister, but always a Congress worker first
In the spring of 2009, as the Congress party was getting ready to face the national elections, party president Sonia Gandhi had conveyed to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that some ministers are required to join the organisation.
The first name in the list was Oscar Fernandes, a soft-mannered politician holding the charge of the Union minister of labour and employment. It was apparently surprising as Fernandes neither had the political skill of someone like Kamal Nath nor a grip on electoral management like Pranab Mukherjee or Ghulam Nabi Azad.
Fernandes, who died on Monday at the age of 80, was a diligent backroom man. Someone who would work daily for 16-17 hours in the background to help the party get battle-ready. Senior Congress leader BK Hariprasad remembers, “When he was working in the party, the AICC office wouldn’t close before 3am.”
At the time of his death, Fernandes was admitted to a private hospital in Karnataka’s Mangaluru due to age-related ailments. “We are deeply saddened by the demise of Shri Oscar Fernandes ji, our heartfelt condolences to his family. A Congress stalwart, his vision for an inclusive India had a huge influence on the politics of our times. The Congress family will deeply miss his mentorship & guidance,” tweeted the Congress.
Expressing his condolences, PM Narendra Modi said, “Saddened by the demise of Rajya Sabha MP Shri Oscar Fernandes Ji. In this sad hour, my thoughts and prayers are with his family and well-wishers. May his soul rest in peace.”
If intellectual prowess clubbed with administrative skills have lifted the likes of Manmohan Singh or Pranab Mukherjee to the highest echelons of public life, for Fernandes, his soft nature and readiness to take up the burden of the backroom made him one of the favourites of Sonia Gandhi.
The man from a very humble background had a brush with politics when he joined the youth Congress in his district. In 1980, Fernandes emerged as a giant killer in national politics when he defeated Tonse Ananth Pai, a legendary political leader and a banker (responsible for the rise of the Syndicate Bank). It’s another matter that in an earlier election, Fernandes was the election agent of Pai.
Oscar Fernandes’s entry in Lok Sabha took him straight to then PM Rajiv Gandhi’s office and the young leader was appointed as the parliamentary secretary to Gandhi for a year. Fernandes, who started his career as a member of Udipi municipal council, went on to serve the Lok Sabha for five terms and he was the sitting member of the Rajya Sabha in his third term.
A trained Kuchipudi dancer, Fernandes and his colleague Veerappa Moily have even performed on stage in a dance recital. While his last outing as the minister was in labour and employment ministry, Fernandes really enjoyed organisational works. His aide BP Singh is now a secretary of the party.
Organisational responsibility took him to several places, including the hinterlands of Bihar. Many Congress leaders remembered that in one such meeting, people asked him to speak in Hindi when he introduced himself as “Oscar Fernandes”! A sharp political mind, Fernandes restarted his speech saying, “Main hoon Oscar. Aur meri biwi (Blossom Fernandes) ka naam hai Phoolkumari.”
When he was a minister, he once called this correspondent to meet him at 10 o’clock. Upon further enquiry, it was found out that he will meet the reporter in his office at 10pm as he works there till 2am. Finally, the meeting started at 11.50pm and ended at 12.10am. As this correspondent was about to leave the minister’s chamber, a smiling Fernandes said, “Remember, you came here yesterday and are leaving today.”