adieu, george

Source: The Hitavada      Date: 31 Jan 2019 11:44:42

A CATHOLIC priest who started with religious teachings at a tender age in home town Mangalore to a socialist leading trade unions, a Union Minister overseeing departure of a cold drink giant to a Defence Minister ready to take cudgels with the Babudom for his soldiers, Mr. George Fernandes straddled in multifarious roles to live a remarkable life and leave an indelible mark on Indian politics. With the passing away of the 88-year-old leader, Indian politics has lost a committed servant of democracy who designed his political roles on his beliefs and ethics. 

Mr. Fernandes’ death ends a glorious chapter that started in the 1970s when he rose as a trade union leader in Mumbai (then Bombay) and soon became a socialist stalwart who towered over national politics for over three decades. The drubbing of Congress heavy weight Mr. S. K. Patil in the 1967 Lok Sabha elections from South Mumbai earned Mr. Fernandes a sobriquet of ‘giant-killer’. And he lived upto the promise during his nine stints as Lok Sabha member and thrice as Cabinet Minister.

The inherent instinct of organising people and leading them during the Railway agitations in Bombay and trade union strikes in industries were stamping of his qualities as a born leader. In fact, the biggest Railway employees’ strike of 1974 still remains a benchmark of trade union leaders succeeding Mr. Fernandes. On his call, the national carrier had come to a grinding halt, shaking the power corridors in New Delhi. So much so that it was one of the flashpoints for imposition of Emergency by then Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi in 1975.

Mr. Fernandes’ political career was based on two strands -- anti-Congressism and socialism. He opposed Emergency “tooth and nail” as endorsed by Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi in his tributes to the departed soul. Anti-Congressism was the base of his idea of alliances with different political ideologies including the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) which he joined in 1998 as Convenor. Mr. Fernandes’ decision to join NDA surprised his socialist friends but old-timers term it as a move stemming from the staunch opposition in any form to Congress.

The fire-brand quality of leadership never waned for Mr. Fernandes even while holding various ministries in Janata Party Government, Mr. V P Singh’s Government and later as Defence Minister in Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee’s Government. Each stint was marked by his audacious decisions that are chronicled in Indian politics. As Industries Minister in 1997 he shunted out multinational firm Coca Cola from India by pushing hard government regulations. Legend has it that he was served a Coke when the region he visited was reeling under severe water scarcity. Though Coca Cola re-entered Indian markets in later years, Mr. Fernandes’ decision is still fresh in public memory.

Leaders like Mr. Fernandes bring with them a certain swagger that only mavericks are blessed with. He passionately fought battles for causes and issues he believed in. The remarkable move to send three Ministry of Defence bureaucrats to Siachen glacier for delay in procuring snow scooters in 1998 is still fondly remembered in the corridors of South Block. The procurement order was signed immediately on return of the trio.

As Defence Minister from March 1998 to May 2004, Mr. Fernandes monitored milestone moments in India’s history. Despite his opposition to nuclearisation, he oversaw Pokhran-II tests. He was at the centre of flat decision making during Operation Parakram, Kargil war and was also instrumental in creation of Nuclear Command Authority. With as many as 18 trips to Siachen to meet the soldiers as Raksha Mantri, Mr. Fernandes only epitomised the charming and affable shade of a firebrand trade union leader. Adieu, George! Indian politics will miss a rebel with cause.