When George Fernandes blew up at question, walked out

Last Updated 29 January 2019, 13:13 IST

George Fernandes was the ‘angry young man of the 1960s and 70s’, the man from Mangaluru who could bring Mumbai to a halt with a single phone call or win the Muzaffarpur parliamentary seat while still in jail by simply sending on a bullock cart that iconic photograph of himself in chains, his hands raised in defiance. Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to meet him during his earlier avatar as the anti-Emergency crusader, the militant Socialist and fiery orator – in short, when he was the greatest ‘Urban Naxal’ in India, to reckon him by today’s standards. I was, after all, just born when he was already taking on Indira Gandhi, plotting the Baroda Dynamite Conspiracy, and threatening to plunge the country into darkness by calling for a Rail Bandh and starving the nation’s power plants of coal. But I did have a brief encounter with him much later, when he was Defence minister. And it was not a pleasant one.

It was January 6, 2002, over three weeks after the December 13, 2001 terrorist attack on Parliament, and Indian troops had been massed on the border. Fernandes was addressing a press conference (PC) at a Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) event in Bengaluru. I was writing for a technology magazine at the time and was not supposed to be at the Defence minister’s PC, but I had sneaked in anyway. I was a fledgling ‘strategic analyst’ and quite a curious cat.

Fernandes began by conveying the seriousness of the situation on the border. “Indian and Pakistan troops are massed 150 metres away from each other, they are in an eyeball to eyeball confrontation. War can break out any moment”, he said.

What followed was a volley of questions from some journalists who were thinking far ahead – to the Union Budget! “George (and it was always that informal “George”, between him and senior journalists), will there be an increase in the Defence outlay in this Budget?” “How much of a raise are you asking for?” and so on. Budget was three months away, and war was about to break out any moment, as Fernandes himself had said. But the PC seemed to be descending into something even more frivolous. “George, when are you coming to Bangalore next? Let’s meet when you are here”, a senior journalist called out from the back.

I stood up, a mike was passed to me. “Defence minister, as you said, a gun could go off any minute and we could be at war soon. What is India’s war doctrine? What is the objective of massing the troops? What, in your view, would constitute ‘victory’?”

That was it. Fernandes turned white with rage and blew up. “What war doctrine? You are trying to help the enemy! Do not ask such questions!” So saying, he stood up.

All the journalists turned towards me and started shouting. “Why did you ask that question? The PC was going so nicely, you should know you are standing in front of the Defence minister…”

I tried to plead with Fernandes. “But sir, the mobilisation has been on for several days now and you yourself said the troops are eyeball to eyeball. There are a limited number of possibilities and by now the Pakistanis know them all. I’m just asking…”

Fernandes turned to the other journalists, told them he was walking out of the PC, and did exactly that. The PC was over.

Fernandes was perhaps right not to answer my question. But he and the Vajpayee government should not have denied the answer to the same question when it came from the military chiefs of the time. Unfortunately, we now know, that’s what happened. The Vajpayee government mobilised the troops in full view of Pakistan, without a plan, without being sure what it wanted to do or achieve.

On January 12, General Musharraf, under Indian and international pressure, made his tactical ‘surrender speech’, announcing to the world that he would not let terrorists use Pakistani soil to launch attacks on India. The government claimed that the troop mobilisation was “coercive diplomacy” and had worked. It did. For four months. Until the Kaluchak massacre in May that year.

The mobilisation of troops, ‘Operation Parakram’, lasted for 10 months. There were multiple plans for a full-scale offensive. Actually, only minor, mostly accidental, skirmishes occurred. It cost India $2 billion by conservative estimates, and at least 800 soldiers.

At one point, a retired Major General told me a few years later, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee ruled out Indian troops crossing the LoC to launch attacks. Sitting in the war room, Vajpayee apparently said, “Woh aadmi (Musharraf) pagal hain, woh kuch bhi karsaktha hain.” (But by some accounts, Gen. Padmanabhan, army chief at the time, repeatedly asked Fernandes for permission to cross the LoC and launch attacks on Pakistan and there, indeed, was one massive ‘surgical strike’). The fear of a nuclear war on the sub-continent weighed on Vajpayee’s mind.

On this, Vajpayee was right. Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine is predicated on behaving irrationally itself to induce rational behaviour in the Indian leadership. But the prime minister of a billion-plus country cannot lightly take the decision to test Pakistan on this matter. But, of course, today, someone can say, “Agar Sardar Patel prime minister hote…”

(Published 29 January 2019, 13:10 IST)

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