Review of The Life and Times of George Fernandes: Personal and political

The sentiment of anti-Congressism directed George Fernandes’ every move, says a new biography

Updated - October 07, 2022 08:28 pm IST

Published - October 07, 2022 09:02 am IST

There are immersive sections in the book on the various fissions and fusions that have plagued socialist parties.

There are immersive sections in the book on the various fissions and fusions that have plagued socialist parties.

Late socialist leader and former Union Minister George Fernandes had a storied career almost mirroring the contemporary political history of India. Rahul Ramagundam’s The Life and Times of George Fernandes, therefore, is of interest not just in terms of one man’s life and political journey, but the coterminous streams of events and ideology that flowed with it.

Fernandes, born in Mangalore, who cut his teeth in politics in Bombay as a trade union leader, and was a Member of Parliament from Muzzaffarpur in Bihar, traversed India geographically. He also explored the ideological spectrum — his politics may have been largely socialist but he was also compatible with the BJP as an ally for many years.

The biography takes an exhaustive look at life, and also the “times” he lived in, as the title suggests. There are immersive sections on the various fissions and fusions that have plagued socialist parties from the time of Ram Manohar Lohia, which provide an important context to the politics of the 1960s and 70s.

Picture of defiance

It was Fernandes who was the iconic picture of defiance when he was photographed in chains during the Emergency, and he claimed fame as the man who banned Coca-Cola when he was industries minister in the 1970s, but what has intrigued most people is his alliance with the BJP and the ease with which he became a part of the National Democratic Alliance, becoming the chairperson of the alliance too.

Fernandes had in interviews explained his alliance as part of his old anti-Congress plank and politics, even if many fellow travellers had an issue over the extrapolation of that politics landing at the door of the Sangh Parivar. Ramagundam says that the anti-Congressism was driven partially “from a personal history of having suffered at the hands of its various governments.” He was “fixated on both the Congress and its seemingly invulnerable dynasty.” For Fernandes, the personal became political.

At the end, Fernandes became the centre of a controversy, of claims on him from his family and his long-term companion and political associate Jaya Jaitly, for whom Ramagundam has critical words. For those who want to know how a political path could be carved away from the Congress in the years when it was the dominant political force, the biography is instructive. It has references to interesting documents, including papers belonging to Fernandes (termed the George Archive by the author) and a tranche of documents belonging to socialist leader Madhu Limaye, deposited at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, which was unsorted and access to which was inexplicably withdrawn after a few days.

The copious material illustrates the fact that Fernandes’ political convictions were born out of not just intellectual mulling but as an experiment in the roles he occupied in public life, and the life he lived.

The Life and Times of George Fernandes; Rahul Ramagundam, Allen Lane, ₹799.

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