George Fernandes' eventful life is too vivid, even for a montage. Picture this: Once he wanted to be a priest, but ended up fighting hired hoodlums. During Emergency, he was incarcerated for allegedly plotting to blow up railway bridges and 13 years later he became the Railway Minister. He played Santa Claus to troops and in pre-Swadeshi Jagran Munch era, he became the bugbear for the MNCs. Coca-Cola and IBM would know better.
Today's avuncular George, the Defence Minister, forever in news, trademark crumpled kurta payjamas and dishavelled hair, is as far he could get away from the his angry man image of the 1970s. But even earlier, he began the journey of his interesting life. Born in a poor Christian family on 3 June 1930 in Mangalore, Karnataka, Fernandes came to Mumbai in search of a job. Life was tough on him. He slept on streets until he got a proof reader's job in a newspaper. As it happens in the movies, he got involved in trade union activities and shot up in the labour circles. He cut his teeth in politics in Mumbai in early sixties under the auspices of socialist leader Dr Ram Manhora Lohia.
1967 was the year of "Giant killer" Fernandes who humbled Congress top shot SK Patil to make his way to Lok Sabha. Then was the time for his stature to grow-among trade unions and building a formidable base in Mumbai India's financial capital. In that respect, Fernandes' finest hour came when he lead the longest-running strike of the railways in 1974. They say it was one of the reason Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency. Morarji Desai inducted Fernandes in his cabinet as industry minister. He returned as a Railway Minister in the VP Singh's Government in 1989 and charted out the ambitious Konkan Railways.
Fernandes founded Samata party in 1994 and his high point came in March 1998 when he, an MP from Nalanda in Bihar, became the Defence Minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee's Government. A recent poll suggested that he, in fact, has turned out to be the best defence minister India has ever had. The reasons are not too far to seek -- he is a soldier's minister for sure. The forces see him as simple honest and empathic man who has been responsible for constant rise in defence allocation. Fernandes reaches out to soldiers in the manner to make them feel close. Be it hitching rides on the army trucks or flying a SU-30 MKI or ,better still, visiting the Siachen glacier, Fernandes has done what no other defence minister did.
Controversies have always been after Fernandes and his stint as a defence minister has seen quite a few of them. He hogged the limelight for the "India's enemy No1 comment" that of course he said he had never said. Tehelka scandal of March 2001 almost finished Fernandes' career and he even resigned from the Cabinet. Well, the maverick bounced back, the Opposition did not like it though. Last heard, he was cleared by the commission of inquiry of any wrongdoing in any defence related matters. At 74, and in the pink of health, George Fernandes can look forwarded to a another inning ahead.