The troubled legacy of George Fernandes

images (14)-01His working class heroics are not enough to offset the compromises Fernandes later made in order to cling to power. He betrayed the working class by joining hands with the right wing and blaming the Congress for his fall from grace sounds silly

George Fernandes had an eventful life. He was a Janata Party leader, founder of the Samata Party and the defence minister in Prime Minister AB Vajpayee’s NDA government. Clearly, his life was that of both conflict and compromise with power. And that could be why political pundits of all hues lauded Fernandes when he passed away on January 29, 2019. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Fernandes represented the best of India’s political leadership. “George Sahab never deviated from his political ideology. He resisted the Emergency tooth and nail. His simplicity and humility were noteworthy. My thoughts are with his family, friends and lakhs of people grieving. May his soul rest in peace.”

Srinath Raghavan, a strategic analyst known for his liberal/centrist views, tweeted: “As a serving army officer, I was surprised to see RM Fernandes seated across the aisle in the economy class of a flight from Delhi. When I greeted him, he explained that he was travelling for party work. We’re unlikely to see the likes of him again.” Ajay Shukla, a defence analyst and a critic of the Modi government, said, “Every soldier felt he (Fernandes) was a man they could relate to. Can’t say that about any of his successors. RIP.”

Goa to Mumbai

Fernandes was born into a Catholic family in Mangalore on June 30, 1930. His parents named him after King George V as the monarch was also born on the same date. The family would soon send him to a monastery to become a Catholic priest. But he left the place at age 18 for Bombay, the mega city of socialist India, looking for a job. In his 20s, Fernandes started organising industrial workers. Like many of his generation, he was also inspired by Ram Manohar Lohia of the Samyukta Socialist Paty. He organised many labour strikes and agitations in the 1950s and 1960s. Fernandes’ surprising victory from South Mumbai against the Congress’ S.K. Patil in 1967 marked his arrival in politics, earning him the tag: “Giant Killer”.

Fernandes was the chief organiser of the 1974 railway strike. The workers were angry over poor working conditions and the strike that went on for 20 days brought the entire country to a halt. In Bombay, electricity and transport workers and taxi drivers joined the agitation. The government tried to diffuse the strike with force—some 30,000 protesters were arrested. After 20 days, the unions called off the strike. But it had already jolted the confidence of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who the next year would declare a State of Emergency in India.

During the emergency, Fernandes was arrested. He remained in prison even after the elections were declared. He contested, from jail, from the Muzaffarpur constituency in Bihar on a Janata ticket and won with a huge margin of 300,000 votes. In the Janata government led by Morarji Desai, Fernandes became the union minister for industries. During his term he locked horns with American corporations IBM and Coco Cola over them holding high stakes in their local partnerships (which was not allowed then). The multinationals finally decided to shut their Indian operations. When the Janata government fell into a crisis over the dual membership issue of Sangh leaders such as AB Vajpayee and LK Advani, Fernandes, along with Prime Minister Desai, strongly opposed them. But Vajpayee and Advani refused to give up their RSS membership for the Janata membership. The disagreements soon led to the collapse of the government and a split in the Janata party. The Sangh members went ahead and founded the BJP in 1980, while Fernandes joined the Janata Dal. He was the minister of railways in the VP Singh government.

Compromises galore

But the irony is that the same Fernandes who opposed Vajpayee-Advani’s dual membership in the Janata days joined Vajpayee-led NDA in 1998. In 1994, he had left the Janata Dal and formed the Samata Party. The party won 12 seats in 1998 elections and became a key constituent of the NDA. He retained the defence portfolio till he was forced to resign in 2004 over a defence scam.

So it was a complex life. While forming an opinion about Fernandes’s legacy, the question is which side one looks upon. If only his union years are taken into consideration, Fernandes was a hero who challenged the dictatorial tendencies of Indira Gandhi. But if one takes a wholesome approach, it’s hard to miss that he was a political opportunist who compromised on his own core ideologies for power. He joined hands with the BJP at a time when other local parties shied away from it, given its past and controversial policies. Even the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the role BJP leaders played in it (which the Justice Liberhan commission endorsed) did not stop the old socialist from cosying up to the BJP. In other words, he played a key role in mainstreaming the BJP. And that’s one of the reasons why many consider him as the poster boy of India’s anti-Congress-hence-Pro-BJP mindset. Sadly, that comes with unpleasant dividends which can easily obscure his working class hero image. George Fernandes is a fallen hero. He fell because he wanted to. This perhaps seals his legacy.

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