By the end of his political career, George Fernandes, ravaged by a debilitating disease, had become a mellow figure--a far cry from ‘George the giant-killer’, who had felled S.K. Patil, one of Congress’ ‘biggest boss’ in the 1967 general elections. He had an arresting persona--the dishevelled hair, crumpled clothes and the look of defiance--not afraid to look the establishment in the eye. In a way, the 1967 general elections was the first election that seriously challenged the Congress’ monopoly at the Centre and in the states. In Tamil Nadu and the entire belt between Punjab and Bengal, to Odisha and Gujarat, it either lost power, or was reduced to winning less than half the seats to the Lok Sabha. It barely scraped through at the Centre to form the government. In many ways, the 1967 elections set the stage for the 2014 mandate.
The transition from being the challenger in Mumbai, who had so effectively galvanised taxi drivers, hotel and restaurant staff and others in the services sector, to a national leader under whose leadership, the country was almost brought to a complete halt during the 1974 railway strike, was seamless. His successful challenge to authoritarianism was best captured in the famous photo of him in chains, hands raised high, when the opposition parties came together and dislodged Mrs Gandhi in 1977, partly fulfilling what Fernandes set out to do 10 years earlier. His visceral opposition to the Congress remained the leitmotiv of his life-long politics, which took him to many parties–SSP, SP, Janata, Janta (S), Janata Dal, Samata, JD (U), and Samata again– and so on. He was conscious about the limitations of consistency and modified his position when the circumstances demanded, for which he was often pilloried. The famous defence of the Morarji regime during the 1979 Janata party crisis followed with him joining the challenger Charan Singh within days. Faced with chaos and large-scale corruption in Bihar, he formed the Samata party with Nitish Kumar, faced electoral washout during the 1995 elections and then had the courage to team up with the BJP to take on Laloo Yadav, which was difficult but which finally paid-off in 2005. However, by then he was fast becoming irrelevant in his own party.
While we have had many all-India leaders, George, as he like to be called, was probably the only one who was at home everywhere–among the villagers in Bihar, the taxi-drivers of Mumbai or among the coffee house workers across India. The voters of Muzaffarpur and Nalanda never felt they were not voting for one of their own. Fluent in Marathi, Hindi, English, Kannada and his mother tongue Konkani, he could easily switch languages to make his listeners comfortable.
Personally, I felt very proud of his principled stand in support of the oppressed, whether from Myanmar, Tibet or Nepal. His doors were always open to all, not just figuratively, but literally when he had it physically removed. I remember meeting him in his bedroom since he was slightly indisposed. It was very simply furnished, he lay on a double bed, with more than half the space occupied by books, magazines, newspapers, pamphlets and files. Never one to stand in formality, he was equally at ease everywhere--at the Pentagon, among the jawans in Siachen or the Dalit tolas of Magadh.
I remember him chomping away at the bebinca that Dr Luis Proto Barbosa, the then chief minister of Goa, brought for him, when we went to discuss the Konkan railways project in 1990 with the then railway minister. He got it approved in record time and the agreement was signed in Panaji on Good Friday, a day of quiet reflection among the Catholics who form more than a quarter of Goa’s population. The dinner was low-key, but the feeling was joyful and satisfying–finally Goa would get connected to Mumbai and beyond.
Having slept many a time on the footpath and benches of Chowpatty, his empathy with the jawans of the Indian army was legendary. Not only did he visit Siachen regularly, he forced officers of the defence ministry to do the same so that they could imbibe a bit of that empathy. While correct in his dealing with the top brass, he was not one who would let discipline be undermined. I remember the anxious discussions leading to the removal of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, a difficult decision under any circumstances. He endured the attacks that followed calmly since there was no personal feelings involved.
During the Kargil crisis, the Cabinet Committee on Security met at least once daily. In the meetings and outside, he and Jaswant Singh was a pillar of support to the Prime Minister, along with Brajesh Mishra. He was possibly the only one I knew who used to address his letters to Shri Vajpayee as ‘My dear Atal’, indicating their close bond for decades. When I joined the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, which has an outstanding collection of personal reminiscences in its Oral History archives, I wanted to capture the memories of these top leaders of the Nuclear Tests and Kargil war, but by then (2016-17), Brajesh Mishra had passed away, and the other three were fortunately still with us, but sadly silent. Nature likes to regularly assert its right over creation, India was lucky that George Fernandes rode the political horizon for over decades as a colossus, not without his faults and limitations, but also for his pluck that made him stare at adversity and not blink.
Shakti Sinha is director, Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, New Delhi