George Fernandes, a minister for soldiers

George Fernandes, a minister for soldiers

George Fernandes taking a view through a heavy machine gun, seized from the Pakistan army in Kargil. (Image: PTI)

George Fernandes was the last Indian Defence Minister who saw military action as Pakistan's misadventure at Kargil heights took place when Fernandes was the occupant of the first-floor office in the South Block.

 Indian military routed the Pakistan Army from the heights they occupied in Operation Vijay and push them back to their territory. When the Bofors guns stopped booming, the Defence Ministry under Fernandes decided to modernize the armed forces in a major way to counter any such attempts from across the border.

 Several of India's military modernization projects – including the purchase of Rafale aircraft – had its genesis back to those days when the veteran socialist in his crumpled kurta-pajama chaired crucial meetings attended by men in uniform and nattily dressed bureaucrats. He increased the defence budget like never before.

Incidentally, he succeeded another socialist, dhoti-clad Mulayam Singh Yadav, in the Defence Ministry.

As a minister, Fernandes was all support for the soldiers. At an age of 73, he flew in a MiG-21 to take on the growing criticism on the Russian fighter jet that earned the sobriquet of “Flying Coffin” because of high accident rates.

George Fernandes is seen inside the cockpit of a MiG-21 after completing a sortie, at Ambala Air Force Station in 2003. (Image: PTI)

Following his 25 minute sortie at Ambala air base, the IAF breathed little easy.

He travelled to Siachen 30 times – an unmatched record so far – to talk to the soldiers there. Many a time, he carried Defence Ministry bureaucrats with him in order to expose them to the kind of hardship the soldiers face at the world's highest battlefields.

George Fernandes in conversation with the jawans at Gulab outpost during his visit to Siachen in 2001. (Image: PTI)

Those trips led to faster procurement of personal gears and arms and ammunition for soldiers.

Fernandes was the Defence Minister when India conducted its second nuclear test in May 1998 at Pokhran. Defence Research and Development Organisation and Indian Army were closely involved with those five tests that mark India's entry to the nuclear weapon club.

 From right: Dr Farooq Abdullah, then Union minister; R Chidambaram, then chairman, Atomic Energy Commission;
A P J Abdul Kalam, then chief scientific advisor to the prime minister; then defence minister George Fernandes,
then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and others celebrate the successful nuclear tests, May 1998. Reuters photo. 

The Navy will remember him as the defence minister, who effected India's only impeachment of a Service Chief. Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat was sacked by the Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on the advice of Fernandes after the Admiral refused to accept an appointment decision made by the Cabinet and went public with his criticism of the government.

While Fernandes lost support within a section of the Navy officers because of the Bhagwat impeachment, the septuagenarian leader later became the first defence minister to spend a night in a submarine.

Flagging off an Expedition from depths of Arabian Sea onboard INSM Sindhuraj to Mt Everest

His tenure at the Defence Ministry was not controversy-free. First, there was the Tehelka episode (sting operation highlighting the issue of bribery in the defence ministry) that saw his ouster from the Defence Ministry (and then BJP president Bangaru Laxman's exit from public life).

He was also an accused in the 2002 coffin scam that led the opposition to boycott him in the Parliament for a long time.

When the UPA government came to power, the Central Bureau of Investigation named him in an FIR in connection to a scandal on the purchase of Barak missile systems from Israel. However, he was never proven guilty in a court of law.

Notwithstanding his status as a defence minister, the veteran socialist refused to accept the extra level of security that comes with the position. The gates of his official residence at 3 Krishna Menon Marg were always open generating news reports with title: “Defenceless Defence Minister.” Several dissident groups allegedly functioned from his house.

As bugles and trumpets come alive for the Beating Retreat ceremony on Tuesday marking an end to the Republic Day celebrations, its befitting time to bid adieu to a defence minister, who is always fondly remembered in the armed forces.