George Fernandes: the ‘giant-killer’ who straddled multiple identities

Former Minister George Fernandes being arrested during the Emergency period.

Former Minister George Fernandes being arrested during the Emergency period.

George Fernandes (88), the man who had set out to be a priest but instead became a trade union leader, a socialist, and finally the Defence Minister of India, breathed his last in New Delhi on Tuesday morning. In his long career in public life, Fernandes was the old-school buccaneer politician, taking risks, changing sides, but retaining his charisma, a maverick who won friends easily, but left them perplexed with some of his choices.

Early years

Born in Mangaluru in Karnataka in June 1930, Fernandes was sent to Mumbai in 1946 to train to be a Catholic priest. But he founded trade unions, finding his mettle in organising the disadvantaged, instead. His influences include Placid De’Mello — the trade union leader known as the “King of the Dockyards” — and Ram Manohar Lohia. His big moment came when, as a Samyukt Socialist Party (SSP) candidate, he defeated the all powerful S.K. Patil of the Congress in the 1967 Lok Sabha elections from South Mumbai, earning the sobriquet “giant-killer” after that poll.

George Fernandes (1930-2019)


His trade unionism made him a natural for the anti-Congress politics that was firming up across the country and Fernandes organised, till date, the biggest strike of railwaymen in 1974 , before being arrested for the Baroda Dynamite case in 1976. His photograph, lifting his handcuffed fist in defiance while being led away by the police, became the most powerful image of the Emergency movement. Current Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj, who was a law student then, volunteered her services to fight the case.

His plunge into national politics was complete when he won the 1977 Lok Sabha poll from Muzzaffarpur in Bihar (in absentia) and went on to represent that seat multiple times. In fact, the only time he fought polls from Karnataka, Bangalore North in 1984, he lost by a margin of 40,000 votes.

From socialist to BJP ally

Fernandes was made the Industry Minister in the Moraji Desai-led Janata Party government, but was famously known for banning Coca Cola in India. After the short run of the Janata government, he managed to retain his Muzzafapur seat in 1980 and remained important in the various avatars of the Janata Party through the 1980s in the opposition.


File photo of George Fernandes at his residence.


In 1989, Fernandes was the Muzzaffarpur candidate of newly-formed Janata Dal and made the Railway Minister in the V.P. Singh government. His biggest achievement then was the Konkan Railway project connecting the Konkan and Malabar coastline.

Unable to bear being sidelined by newly-emerged Mandal leader Lalu Prasad, Fernandes and current Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar broke away from the Janata Dal in 1995 to form the Samata Party.

Political marginalisation was sought to be alleviated with a tactical alliance with the BJP, the other big force in Bihar. “In his life, George Fernandes did not compromise with his ideology, the circumstances dictated that we ally with the BJP, and we kept our ideology intact through that,” said Janata Dal (United) Bihar president Bashishtha Narayan Singh, on the issue.

But it does not detract from the fact that his endorsement of the National Democratic Alliance, and leading it as its convener, did more to mainstream the Sangh Parivar than any other move.

Those unable to reconcile a socialist George Fernandes, the man who broke the mould when it came to region, religion and even personal narrative, with the ''troubleshooter-in-chief'' of the Vajpayee government, say it may have been a new form of anti-Congressism.


The Prime Minister Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee visited the underground nuclear explosion test sites at Pokhran in Rajasthan on May 20, 1998. Photo: The Hindu Archives

George Fernandes seen with the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam at Pokhran in Rajasthan.


For himself, Fernandes never explained nor held back from his friends or enemies. He not only embraced the BJP, but also, despite his stance against nuclearisation, became the Defence Minister under whom India conducted the Pokhran II tests . His ability to straddle various identities, that helped a Mangalorean Catholic win multiple times in caste politics ridden Bihar was evident in these leaps.

Later years

Fernandes’ years as Defence Minister saw him visit the highest battlefield in the world, Siachen, a record 18 times, sometimes carrying Christmas cakes, sometimes just to be among the soldiers. But it also saw him embroiled in the coffin scam and the Tehelka expose.

After the fall of the Vajpayee government in 2004, Fernandes found himself on the margins of the JD(U), under the shadow of a new star, Nitish Kumar.

His ill health was cited as a reason why he was denied a ticket in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, and a stroke after that left him mostly home bound till his death.

His care was fought over by his estranged wife Leila Kabir and his son Sean on one side, with his long time partner Jaya Jaitly on the other. His death on a cold January morning brings to a close a turbulent chapter in Indian history, and the man whose handcuffed image defined it.

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Printable version | Jul 30, 2022 10:34:22 pm |