Former Union minister George Fernandes passes away

Former Union minister George Fernandes passes away

“George Sahab is no more. He was battling illness for a long time. I will be going to his house to pay my respect,” veteran Parliamentarian Sharad Yadav told DH. (PTI File Photo)

George Fernandes, one of India's foremost socialist leaders and a former Defence Minister passed away here on Tuesday. He was 88.

He breathed his last at 6 am on Tuesday. The funeral is likely to be held in Delhi at a cemetery in central Delhi on Wednesday after his son Sean Fernandes returns from the USA.

Fernandes was suffering from Alzheimer's disease, which had forced him out of the public eye for many years. According to his longtime companion Jaya Jaitly he had contracted flu of late.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar – once considered a protege to Fernandes – were among the leaders who visited the south Delhi house where he spent his last few years.

"George Sahab represented the best of India’s political leadership. Frank and fearless, forthright and farsighted, he made a valuable contribution to our country. He was among the most effective voices for the rights of the poor and marginalised. Saddened by his passing away," tweeted Modi.

“I am sorry to hear about the passing away of former Parliamentarian and Union Minister George Fernandes’ji. My condolences to his family and friends in this time of grief,” says Congress president Rahul Gandhi in a message.

Born to a Christian family from Mangaluru, he also served as the Minister of Railways and Minister for Industries at the centre in the past.

A firebrand politician, who made his marks in the trade union movements of the 1960s and 1970s in Mumbai but successfully contested Lok Sabha seats from Bihar, Fernandes was the defence minister in the first NDA government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the Prime Minister.

A giant killer, he entered the Parliament in 1967 by defeating Congress stalwart S K Patil from South Bombay constituency. Seven years later the socialist leader hogged the national limelight when as a trade unionist he led a massive railways strike that brought the country to a standstill.

He was so closely involved with the railway unions that he refused to take charge for the first few days when he became the Railways minister in 1989 under VP Singh's National Front government. Fernandes couldn't cope up with the reality that as a minister he had to sit across the table while talking to the union leaders from the Railways.

Fearing his popularity among the poor and downtrodden, Indira Gandhi-led Congress government was in search for him during the emergency era, forcing him to the underground. The iconic image of Fernandes in chains was one of the most defining moments of that period, considered a black spot in Indian democracy.

As a Defence Minister, he was at the helm of affairs when India conducted its second nuclear test in Pokhran in May 1998. He also stoutly defended the Indian Air Force MiG-21 fighters that earned the sobriquet of “Flying Coffin” because of high accident rates and at an age of 73 flew in one those Russian origin combat jets in order to stave off the criticisms that IAF was receiving.

Fernandes was also famous for his frequent trips to Siachen where he mingled freely with the soldiers.