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Arun Jaitley: George as I knew him

By Arun Jaitley
January 30, 2019 12:54 IST
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'George was a politician with a difference. He had the ability to stand alone, take a position, however extreme, and sustain that position,' remembers Arun Jaitley.

Then defence minister George Fernandes at the World Trade Centre site in New York, March 2002.

IMAGE: Then defence minister George Fernandes at the World Trade Centre site in New York, March 2002. All Photographs: Archives

With the passing away of the veteran Socialist leader George Fernandes, India has lost a political colossus.

George was a politician with a difference. He had the ability to stand alone, take a position, however extreme, and sustain that position.

He was a political worker, an extraordinary leader, a powerful trade unionist, a parliamentarian that many would dread to face and, above all, a dissenter.

In the early 1970s, when I was a student, George was one of the most charismatic speakers, much wanted to address campus audiences. My familiarity with him started at that time and I had an opportunity to work with him both in Opposition and in government.


The 1967 Bombay South Election

George once narrated to me his story, the entire tale of the 1967 Bombay South election. That election would be an education for any student of psephology or electoral politics.

Shri S K Patil was the unquestioned leader of Mumbai, then Bombay. He was a Union minister and the Congress party's treasurer. He had won his Bombay South Lok Sabha seat several times by large margins. Nobody believed that Patil could ever be defeated till the 36-year-old president of the Bombay Taximen's Union, George Fernandes, announced that he would challenge Patil in the election.

All the Opposition parties supported George. George's first task was to make people realise that Patil was not invincible. Posters, banners, stickers on taxis, outside apartments were put up, all carrying one line 'Patil can be defeated'.

Once the campaign picked up and became the talk of the town, the media asked S K Patil for his comments on the same. Patil inappropriately replied, 'Only God can defeat me'.

Prompt came George's response campaign. The next slogan was 'God does not vote, only you do. So, only you can defeat Patil'.

The voters dislike arrogance and defeating Patil became the flavour. With the support of the Opposition and the unions, George secured a victory and entered Parliament. He quickly made a mark as a parliamentarian, a great speaker in at least seven languages. A phenomenon very rare in India.

George Fernandes, second from right, with his Janata Party colleagues Ramakrishna Hegde, Chandra Shekhar and Madhu Dandavate

IMAGE: George Fernandes, second from right, with his Janata Party colleagues Ramakrishna Hegde, Chandra Shekhar and Madhu Dandavate.

The JP Movement and the Railway Strike

Post Mrs Indira Gandhi sweeping to power in 1971, George became an active part of the JP Movement. Bihar had always been an important political constituency for both the Socialists and George Fernandes. He concentrated on his trade unions and became head of the railway unions.

In 1974, he called for a railway strike for the working conditions of the railwaymen. This has been one of the most tense trade union agitations ever in India. The entire country was hearing the slogan 'Rail ka chakka jaam karenge'.

The events of 1974 and those which followed culminated in the imposition of the Emergency.

The Emergency

The Emergency witnessed multiple reactions. Most institutions caved in. This included the judiciary, the media and the civil services. Only some outliers in these were the dissenters.

Many political workers got scared and preferred inactivity, some even issued statements supporting the Emergency. The bolder political Opposition workers protested and went to prisons.

George Fernandes believed in militant opposition to the Emergency. Many felt that the idea of a militant opposition to the Emergency was misconceived, but George was a man with his own mind. He believed that this was the only course. His opposition was shattered and, along with his colleagues, he was arrested and prosecuted.

George's idealism overtook political pragmatism when on 19th January, 1977, Mrs Indira Gandhi announced the holding of the general elections. All the political prisoners in Tihar Jail had a meeting.

George Fernandes as a Union minister in the Janata Party government, 1977

IMAGE: George Fernandes as a Union minister in the Janata Party government, 1977.

George was in Ward 17. Some of us were in Ward 1. We all were allowed to assemble in Ward 2 for political consultations. While everybody else favoured participation and contesting of elections, George was a dissenter.

He wanted to boycott the 1977 elections. He believed that this was going to be a make-believe farcical election through which Indira Gandhi would earn legitimacy and continue her dictatorship and hence the Opposition by contesting must not give legitimacy to the elections.

Though in a hopeless minority, George stood by his position. The Janata Party was formed immediately and it decided its candidates and George was chosen to contest from Bihar. He declined to sign on the nomination papers.

It finally took Morarji Desai who came to the Tees Hazari courts (where George used to come for his trial), with a set of nomination papers, to get George to sign them so that he could contest from prison.

George eventually yielded and signed his nomination papers. The results were declared and George won the election by a huge margin.

The Janata Party formed the government with Morarjibhai as prime minister. A perpetual rebel, George's first reaction was to decline to join the Cabinet. He again misjudged the public mood.

I remember George being gheraoed by 500 political workers at New Delhi's VP House and being compelled to yield in the face of hostile slogans to join the Cabinet.

The fall of the Janata Party government was a chapter in George's life that he would like to forget. He delivered in Parliament the most eloquent defence of the government, only to quit the next day under pressure from his Socialist colleagues Raj Narain and Madhu Limaye.

George spent the rest of his next decade in Opposition championing the issues of farmers, trade unions and finally Bofors. He was one of the leading campaigners against corruption in the Rajiv Gandhi era.

His attacks on the government were perhaps the most aggressive ones. He had built a reputation as being both a master of facts and languages.

Defence Minister and the false allegations

In the NDA government, headed by Mr Vajpayee, George, as the convenor of the NDA, was one of the architects of alliance formation. Even his worst critics would not attempt to level allegations of corruption against him.

Yet twice as defence minister, once during the Tehelka tapes and second in relation to the CAG report relating to the purchase of coffins, false allegations of corruption were leveled against him.

A commission of enquiry in the Tehelka tapes issue vindicated George. The Coffingate report was an absurdity. Metallic coffins were called costlier by comparing their costs with wooden coffins. Two unequal commodities do not cost the same.

George led the most austere of lives. He washed his own clothes, cleaned his own utensils. He never owned a television till a well-wisher insisted that he needed to have one.

His books and files lay scattered on the floor in his house till some friends made arrangements to get him some ordinary book shelves.

He took up causes which nobody espoused and pursued them with all vigour. Ministers were scared of facing the wrath of his attack when he was in the Opposition.

But eventually his health took the better of him. The slowing down of his mind and various faculties could be seen towards 2003-2004. He still had full comprehension, but that aggression was lacking. I noticed this during a GOM in the last days of the Vajpayee government.

During the 2005 Bihar elections, Advaniji, on behalf of the BJP, announced Nitish Kumar would be the NDA's chief ministerial candidate.

We, in the BJP, felt that this was logical and would also help us unseat Lalu Yadav's regime. A murmur of protest came from George.

When I went to meet him, I realised, because of failing health, he had not realised the full implication of his reaction.

His parliamentary tenure in Lok Sabha ended in 2009. He needed official accommodation for some more time. Nitish Kumar graciously put him up as a candidate in a by-election for the Rajya Sabha and George entered the Upper House for the first time.

His oath taking showed his state of health. He could politically no longer contribute. He needed help and assistance at every stage.

The tiger had been tamed, but his escapades would be remembered for a long time.

George Fernandes was a parliamentarian for several terms. He was a Union minister thrice. But he will be remembered for the several agitations he lead, several positions he took and several causes he represented.

George Fernandes with Ram Vilas Paswan and Ajit Singh interacts with political workers in 1990

IMAGE: George Fernandes with Ram Vilas Paswan and Ajit Singh interacts with political workers in 1990.


George Fernandes was the last of the veteran Lohiaites. Dr Ram Manohar Lohia, George's mentor, represented the anti-Nehru, anti-Congress face of Indian politics. After the 1962 general election and the China war debacle, Dr Lohia gave to this country the famous slogan 'Congress hatao desh bachao'.

This led to an anti-Congress alliance. The first step was that Dr Lohia, Acharya J B Kripalani and Deendayalji (Upadhyaya) became the joint Opposition candidates in three bye-elections to the Lok Sabha.

The then Jana Sangh President Dr Raghu Vira lost his life in a road accident while campaigning in these elections. However, in the post-Dr Lohia era, with the emergence of the BJP as the principal pole of Indian politics, many Lohiaites shed their inhibition and started doing political business with the Congress.

The Left was not far behind. They called it re-polarisation. One honorable exception was George Fernandes. He was a born Lohiaite and he died as one. His anti-Congress moorings were never compromised.

Arun Jaitley is the Union Minister Without Portfolio.

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