The rebel who lost his cause

George Fernandes

When a great man dies, it is usually said in tribute that an era had come to an end. George Fernandes died on Tuesday, aged 88, but the era of Fernandes ended long before that. Born in 1930, Fernandes left his home town Mangaluru as a young man, rebelling against his father and the church. He landed in Mumbai and did odd jobs, until he came in contact with the leading lights of the Socialist and trade union movements, Placid D’mello and Ram Manohar Lohia. The era that Fernandes defined began in the late 1960s when, as leader of the city’s working classes, he could and did bring Mumbai to a halt at will. His moment came in the 1970s, when he became the man Indira Gandhi feared the most. He, in chains, hands raised in defiance, was the greatest symbol of resistance against the Emergency. Post-Emergency, as a minister, he drove Coca Cola and IBM out of India, which set off, inadvertently, the rise of the Indian IT outsourcing industry and, eventually, globalisation that swept away India’s Socialist era and Fernandes’ ideological anchor.

The trajectory of Fernandes’s life is thus a reminder of the ideological journey of India from Socialism to liberalisation and the rise of Right-wing politics, to which, unfortunately, he bowed, possibly without believing in it. In the post-Emergency Janata Party-led coalition government, Fernandes had staunchly opposed allowing A B Vajpayee and L K Advani to retain their membership of the RSS while being in government. His ideology and political judgement collapsed with the rise of the Mandal era when he, spurned by the rising hero of that period, Lalu Prasad, knocked on the doors of the BJP, becoming Defence minister in the Vajpayee cabinet. One might ask today, was George Fernandes the Socialist, Secular revolutionary of the working classes he undoubtedly was for a period, or was he driven by no more than the anti-Congressism of his time?

In the 1970s, when he raged against the elected government, plotted its downfall through the Baroda Dynamite Conspiracy, or threatened to plunge India into darkness by stopping trains and denying coal supply to the power plants, he was treated as a hero; in the 1980s and 90s, he pleaded against the death sentence to an abettor of Indira Gandhi’s assassins, defended Naxals and sheltered all kinds of rebels and insurgents at his home in the name of human rights, and he was still a hero. In today’s India, though, when Kanhaiya Kumar merely shouts slogans, it is anti-nationalist, sedition, treason. This is not Fernandes’ era, and it is as well that he died not knowing it. For if he had, who knows, he may have once again felt called upon to rebel.

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The rebel who lost his cause


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