The passing away of George Fernandes on 29 January 2019 set off tributes, obituaries and assessments of his work and life, which could never ever be described as routine or uneventful. He was 88 when he succumbed to swine flu in Delhi, but for several years before that he had been out of public life due to Alzheimer’s disease.
Charismatic, fluent in a number of languages, a forceful public speaker, “George” as he was known even to the most junior activist, he was participant-witness to some of the most tumultuous events of India’s politics. Born in Mangalore (Karnataka) on 3 June 1930, he had entered the seminary to become a Catholic priest, but left without taking vows.
The 1974 railway strike that he led has become a milestone in the history of trade union actions in India. More significantly, it has been analysed for the processes and leadership strategies it involved in mobilising lakhs of workers by academics, trade unionists and journalists. He went on to become the Railways minister in 1989 in V.P. Singh’s government. Before that, he was Industry minister in the 1977 Janata Party government. His battles in the latter role with MNC giants Coca-Cola and IBM led to the two quitting operations in India, and brought him immense public attention and criticism.
He entered the Lok Sabha in 1967 from the Bombay South constituency. He later represented Muzzafarpur and Nalanda constituencies in Bihar, and was also a Rajya Sabha member in 2009-2010. His campaigning in the Chikmaglur constituency for the Janata Party candidate against Indira Gandhi in 1977 was also a memorable performance, though Gandhi won the seat ultimately.
Fernandes’s role in protesting the Emergency announced by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975 is part of history. He was also a vocal critic of the right wing and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). So it was with incredulity that many witnessed his joining of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government in 1998 and 1999. The then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee appointed him Defence minister. It was in this role that he oversaw the Kargil war of 1999, and the nuclear test at Pokhran the previous year.
There were many other issues that Fernandes took up in his trademark enthusiastic and assertive style. One of these was the cause of Tibetan refugees who had fled to India. In fact, both the Dalai Lama and the President of the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamshala Dr. Lobsang Sangay mourned his death in eloquent words.
But overall, it was Fernandes the trade unionist who will be most remembered. The media consistently used words like “firebrand” and “militant” to describe him, and reported his rousing speeches to Bombay (Mumbai)’s workers faithfully. He was greatly influenced by unionist Placid D’mello and Socialist ideologue and leader Rammanohar Lohia. Fernandes was also the co-founder of the New India Co-operative Bank Ltd (in 1968), and held the post of general secretary of the Hind Mazdoor Kisan Panchayat for many years. In this capacity, he led hotel, BEST, municipal workers, among many other areas.
As his long time colleagues point out he was friends with the late Shiv Sena chief Balasaheb Thackeray for many decades and was the only one among leaders of his generation who called the latter ‘Bal’. Despite this, he continued to oppose the Sena on issues that he found objectionable. As they point out it was Fernandes who coined the slogan “Sundar Mumbai Kamgaranchi Mumbai” to counter the Sena’s popular and differently worded slogan.
His critics point to his participation in the cabinet of the NDA government and some even term it a betrayal of the socialist and progressive movements that Fernandes had espoused. That is a part of his life and work that posterity and historians will perhaps analyse.
Notwithstanding the criticism, however, Fernandes will be remembered as one of the most colourful, passionate and articulate participant-actor of post-Independence India.