Oscar Fernandes: Soft-spoken, diligent workaholic who got Congress battle ready
In the spring of 2009, as the Congress party was getting ready to face the national elections, party president Sonia Gandhi told Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that some ministers were required to move to the party organisation .
The first name in the list was Oscar Fernandes, then the Union minister of labour and employment. Those who didn’t know the soft-spoken Fernandes, a lifelong Congressman from Udupi in Karnataka, may have been surprised at the choice. After all, he possessed neither the political skills of someone like Kamal Nath nor the electoral management abilities that Pranab Mukherjee or Ghulam Nabi Azad did.
Yet Fernandes, a Rajya sabha member, who died on Monday at the age of 80 in Mangaluru from age-related illnesses, was a diligent backroom man. He would work for 16-17 hours a day, day after day, on all the small details that got a party battle-ready. Senior Congress leader BK Hariprasad remembers that when Fernandes was around, “the AICC office wouldn’t close before 3am.”
“We are deeply saddened by the demise of Shri Oscar Fernandesji; 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 condolence, 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.”
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted that it was his “personal loss”. “He was a guide and mentor to many of us in the Congress Party. He will be missed and fondly remembered for his contributions.”
During his tenure as the labour minister, Fernandes maintained a cordial ties with trade union leaders even from the other spectrum of political ideology. “He was a different labour minister. His biggest contribution was that he prepared the entire groundwork for abolition of the fixed-term employment in the factories that was brought in by the (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee government. When Mallikarjun Kharge succeeded him, the notification was issued,” said CITU general secretary Tapan Sen.
His tenure also saw the maternity benefits law being strengthened with its coverage expanded to women in factories, mines, plantations, performance establishments, even stores with more than 10 employees.
Fernandes, whose mother was India’s first female magistrate, joined the youth Congress in his district and made is name in 1980, when he defeated Tonse Ananth Pai, a legendary political leader and a banker (responsible for the rise of the Syndicate Bank) in the 1980 Lok Sabha elections from Udupi. He served in the Lower House till 1996; then moved to the Rajya Sabha in 1998. Interestingly, in an earlier election, Fernandes was the election agent of Pai.
Oscar Fernandes’s entry into the Lok Sabha took him straight to then PM Rajiv Gandhi’s office where the young leader (he was only 39 at the time) was appointed the parliamentary secretary to Gandhi for a year. Fernandes, who started his career as a member of Udupi municipal council, went on to serve the Lok Sabha for five terms and 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 work. 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 pm for a short meeting. The meeting eventually 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.”