The rebel from Mangaluru who changed his stripes

If he was rebellion personified, he was a man of contradictions too – his opposition to dual membership of Jan Sangh leaders in both RSS and Janata Party led to the collapse of the post-Emergency government in the late 1970s but a little over a decade, he embraced the BJP alliance giving the saffron party a political legitimacy it badly needed post-Babri Masjid demolition. Credit: George Fernandes.org

At 16, he rebelled against his father to join a seminary, only to leave it a couple of years later after fighting with the rectors. At 78, ten years before he breathed his last on Tuesday, he battled unsuccessfully with his one-time protege Nitish Kumar to fight the Lok Sabha elections.

And the six decades in between were also one endless rebellion for George Fernandes, whom governments of the day dreaded for his crusade on behalf of workers in the 1960s and 1970s. He would later become one of the top enemies of the Congress party.

If he was rebellion personified, he was a man of contradictions too – his opposition to dual membership of Jan Sangh leaders in both RSS and the Janata Party led to the collapse of the post-Emergency government in the late 1970s, but a little over a decade later, he embraced the BJP alliance, giving the saffron party a political legitimacy it badly needed after the Babri Masjid demolition.

He was a 'swadeshi' in economic philosophy in the 1970s but the 1990s saw a new, more 'liberal' Fernandes.

His leadership of the Railways strike of 1974 is now folklore for trade unionists while his decision to boot IBM and Coca Cola out of India for violating the law when he was a minister in Morarji Desai government displayed a spine against the multinationals.

Born in a Catholic family in Mangaluru in 1930, he refused to heed his father’s wishes that he study law, going to the seminary instead; that lasted until he was 19 when he walked out, partly in protest against the sub-standard food seminarians got, in sharp contrast to the repasts the rectors enjoyed.

Fernandes, any way turning an atheist by then, was excommunicated by the church, and soon took a plunge into trade union movement in Mumbai where he became the George that defined his life.

His rebellious nature and organisational skills were put to better use here, and later he went to Bihar where he fought elections. Wherever he went, he simply belonged to that place.
A protege of socialist icon Ram Manohar Lohia, he climbed the leadership ladder of Samyukta Socialist Party (SSP) and entered electoral politics by defeating Congress stalwart S K Patil in 1967 election. He earned the sobriquet the 'George the giant killer'.

In 1971, he married activist Leila Kabir, and the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi attended the wedding reception. But three years later he spearheaded a furious strike by railwaymen against her government, a move she tried to smother with a heavy hand.

During the Emergency, he was arrested and put under trial for allegedly trying to blow up railway tracks. The iconic black and white image of Fernandes with his handcuffs being taken to jail during symbolised the fiery socialist and his supporters displayed the photograph when they campaigned in Bihar's Muzzafarpur in 1977 when he was in jail. He won by over three lakh votes.

In the Morarji Desai government, he was the Industries Minister and at the thick of things when the political temperature was rising.

Along with other socialist leaders like Madhu Limaye, one of his close comrades, he led the rebellion against Jan Sangh activists in Janata Party having membership in the RSS too. It led to the collapse of the Desai government and Charan Singh came in to fill the vacuum, an experiment that did not live long and ultimately saw the return of Indira.

Fernandes was back when V P Singh formed the government in 1989, thus ousting the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress. The socialist leaders in Janata Dal were pulling in different directions and this led Fernandes to form the Samata Party in 1994 as he did not want to stay in a party along with Lalu Prasad, now the RJD patriarch.

He, along with Nitish Kumar, another bete noire of Prasad, left Janata Dal and later joined hands with the BJP-led alliance, which his friends and admirers say lifted the political untouchability of the BJP that was considered a communal party.

Fernandes went on to become the NDA Convenor and Defence Minister in the A B Vajpayee regime. Vajpayee was said to have surrounded himself with people like Fernandes to shelter from the influence RSS could have in the administration. In between, the Samata Party had merged with JD(U).

As Defence Minister, Fernandes was the darling of soldiers but his stint in the ministry was marred by controversy. He was accused of being involved in a coffin scam, and a sting operation by Tehelka magazine appeared to implicate his party in a corrupt arms deal. He resigned after the sting but was reinstated later.

However, after the defeat of NDA in the 2004 elections, Nitish slowly started edging out Fernandes from the leadership. Fernandes lost the presidency of the JD(U) to Sharad Yadav in a bitterly fought election.

2009 saw further marginalization of Fernandes in the party with Kumar, who by then had full control of the party, refusing to give him a ticket to fight Lok Sabha. Instead, Kumar offered a Rajya Sabha seat, fully knowing that Fernandes would refuse it.

Instead, Fernandes fought the Lok Sabha polls as an independent and forfeited his deposit. That was a bitter end to an illustrious political career. Alzheimer's and Parkinson's devoured him over his later years and he faded from the public eye. But to many the abiding image will be that of firebrand George, the giant-killer George, arm raised in protest, handcuffs and all.

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