After fighting for years with Alzheimer and several other ailments, the former defence minister George Fernandes died on 29 January 2019, at New Delhi; he was 88. Soon after the news of his death became public, politicians from all hues and shades started heaping their praises on him as a token of parliamentary formalism.
The press is full of obituaries by his friends, comrades, foes and critics. Amid the largesse of eulogies, the scope of critical analysis of George Fernandes for his political role is neglected. It would be an injustice to George Fernandes if we don’t analyse him critically and ignore the multitude of personas he carried in the vibrant political arena of India.
Born to a Mangalorean Roman Catholic family, George Mathew Fernandes studied in a seminary and was supposed to be a priest but his career locomotive took a different turn bringing him to Bombay, where he would, according to the popular narrative, sleep on the footpaths, work sometimes in a hotel or as a proofreader with the Times of India, before being picked up by the famous Lohiaite socialist trade unionist Dr P D’mello. Under his patronage, George Fernandes will become what he will be known for.
For the rest of his life, George Fernandes would be known as an ardent Lohiaite socialist due to his adherence to the political doctrine of Ram Manohar Lohia, a hardcore anti-communist politician who wanted to usurp the leadership of the mainstream labour movement, which was largely influenced by the left in the 1960s and 1970s.
Lohia and his followers wanted to strip the labour movement of India, especially in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, and Delhi, of its leftist political identity. They strictly opposed the use of trade unions to politically educate the working class and raise the level of their consciousness, which would upgrade their political thinking. The Lohiaite movement wanted to strictly confine the labour movement within the periphery of economism and restrict the working class from joining the larger political bandwagon.
It was Lohia who helped the RSS return to the political front row of the country after it was banished due to its complicity in the murder of MK Gandhi. Though Jawaharlal Nehru allowed the RSS to help the Indian Army and the government during India’s war against China, he wasn’t in a mood to allow the RSS become a formidable force in the Indian polity along with its political outfit — the Jan Sangh — the very organisation which later crystalised into the BJP. Lohia helped the marginalised RSS to come to the centre stage by accolading them with honourable adjectives, which later helped the Hindutva fascist camp an easy entry into the Janata Party scheme of Jayaprakash Narayan.
George Fernandes carved a niche for himself in the Indian parliamentary politics and became a star Lohiaite after he defeated Congress strongman SK Patil in the 1967 Lok Sabha election from the prestigious South Bombay seat. The press hailed the victory of George Fernandes, an unknown trade union leader then, as the slaying of Goliath by a modern David. This incident catapulted George Fernandes to the league of those who were angry with Indira Gandhi, her tyrannical nature and her despotic rule. The next decade became the most important part of George Fernandes’s career, which defined and redefined the political trajectory for the rest of his life.
The watershed moment in George Fernandes’s career came when he played a crucial role in organising the historic railway strike of 1974, during which was recorded as one of the largest strikes in the history of the global labour movement. More than two million workers participated in the strike. Many were jailed, tortured, and many were thrown out of their job by the Congress regime. This strike was a manifestation of the people’s anger against the tyrannical rule of Mrs Gandhi and George became the people’s hero.
During this strike, George Fernandes was found delivering fierce anti-establishment speeches on one hand, while on the other, he was also busy in closing a deal with the government that will end the strike mid-way without allowing the working class their due victory against Mrs Gandhi’s government. The betrayal of George Fernandes ended the railway strike abruptly and triggered severe frustration among the workers.
With the imposition of emergency, an imperialist lackey George Fernandes found a scope to register his identity as a crusader for democracy and become a legend through his actions. He was accused by the Congress of attempting to assassinate Mrs Gandhi. The Baroda dynamite conspiracy case became infamous during the emergency and George Fernandes had to go underground as the police began a massive manhunt for him. During this period, he shamelessly approached the French government and the CIA seeking help for an armed uprising against Gandhi’s regime.
According to leaked cables of the US embassy in India published by the Wikileaks, on 1 November 1975, few months after the emergency was declared and he was underground, George Fernandes met Manfred Turlach, the labour attaché of the French embassy in New Delhi. During this meeting, George Fernandes told Turlach that there were 300 people with him who are carrying out sabotage activities in India and asked for funding from the French government.
George Fernandes reportedly said that he had people trained in explosives and they had blown up railway bridges in south and west. The cable also cited George Fernandes telling Turlach that his group is in touch with the Naxalites and are working along with them.
Turlach reportedly declined to support citing George Fernandes’s adherence to violence. Upon refusal, George Fernandes asked Turlach to connect him with the CIA so that he can ask them for money. It was awfully coming from the very man who was calling the US an imperialist power in public and criticised it for the Vietnam War.
When Turlach told him categorically that he knows no CIA personality, George Fernandes had some “Miss Gita” call up the US embassy to set-up a meeting between him and the ambassador or the labour counsellor. She was told that “there was absolutely no possibility for a meeting” by the embassy. This frantic attempt to gain CIA support is no odd thing for George Fernandes. In his life ahead, he repeatedly showed his fickle nature in politics.
The photo of a manacled George Fernandes after his arrest became an icon of “resistance against emergency” and despite remaining imprisoned unlike other Janata Party leaders, George Fernandes won a landslide majority from Muzaffarpur of Bihar, which would become his safe seat for the future.
Soon after the Janata government was formed, George Fernandes was found hobnobbing with those very sections of the power and establishment whom he publicly loathed and rebuked earlier. Despite his rhetoric against Coca Cola and IBM that drove the two US giants out of India in 1978 (blamed more to rigorous Indian patent rules than George Fernandes’s anti-imperialism) he remained a double-dealer, who would, on one hand, raise his voice for the marginalised, exploited and oppressed people, and on the other, he would be partnering with those powers who perpetrates the most heinous crimes on the poor in India and globally.
During the 1970s and 1980s, when Bal Thackeray had pressed into service feral Shiv Sena thugs to crush the left-leaning labour movement in the Bombay mills with the support of Sharad Pawar and other Congress leaders, George Fernandes didn’t show any kind of reservation in aligning with Thackeray and his ilk. Years later, in a book of Uddhav Thackeray, George Fernandes eulogised the dreaded Hindutva fascist senior Thackeray who was directly responsible for the killing of thousands of Muslims in Mumbai during the post-Babri Masjid demolition riots.
His joining of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in 1998 was seen as a sudden move and political compulsion driven by anti-Congress activism, however, in reality, it was aligning with the very powers with whom George Fernandes had an ideological affinity. The RSS wasn’t an adversary to George Fernandes, as he tried showing in 1977-78 when he objected to the RSS’s membership retained by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani despite becoming a part of the Janata Party; the RSS was a very part of George Fernandes’s existence.
George Fernandes’s association with the NDA, his constant meetings with the Hindutva fascist RSS’s Swadeshi Jagran Manch, his chauvinist chest thumping as a defence minister and inciting a new wave of xenophobia regarding China by calling the neighbouring country a bigger threat to India’s security than Pakistan, were symbolic representation of the Hindutva fascist hidden inside his “socialist” and “progressive” attire.
By completing the Pokhran II nuclear tests, George Fernandes betrayed the very George Fernandes who wrote vociferously against Mrs Gandhi’s tryst with nuclear weapons during the Pokhran I in 1974. Such “U-turns” became the norm of his life in the post-NDA phase.
It was not a political compulsion that kept him in the NDA, rather his free choice. For he opposed the critics of the gruesome killing of Australian missionary Graham Stein and his children in Odisha by a bunch of Hindutva-incensed fascist thugs of the Bajrang Dal. Through his loosely juxtaposed illogics, George Fernandes tried to defend the perpetrators and dismissed the fact that the crime was of an unprecedented nature, calling its publicity a “conspiracy” against India.
This self-styled champion of justice and rights didn’t stop here. During and after the 2002 Gujarat pogrom that consolidated the power of Narendra Modi, George Fernandes stood up in the Lok Sabha to defend the crime and the criminals. He stood up in the support of Modi and other Hindutva butchers whose hands were crimsoned in the blood of the innocent Muslim men, women, and children of Gujarat.
While defending Modi’s Hindutva fascist regime’s crimes on 30 April 2002, George Fernandes said:
“Why all this hue and cry. They are telling every story as if all this were happening for the first time in the country. It is being told that somewhere a mother was killed and the baby brought out from her womb, somewhere a daughter was raped in front of her mother and somewhere else someone was burnt alive. Is all this happening for the first time? Did all this not happen on the Delhi roads in 1984?”Answer to Pravin Rashtrapal and others, Parliamentary proceedings, page 441.
George Fernandes became a favourite politician for the Sangh when he uttered the above cliche whataboutery which is now quintessential of all Sanghi bigots. Lohia metamorphosed into Savarkar and violence against a minority community by one political party was justified by citing violence against another minority community by another political party. It was George Fernandes, who defended the BJP and the RSS from the allegations of violence more strongly than even hardcore Sangh protagonists like Uma Bharti could.
There was one big reason behind George Fernandes’s support to the Modi regime during the last leg of his tryst with power. He was shielded by Vajpayee and a host of RSS leaders from the allegations of multiple defence scams. If the biggest cover-up of defence scams after the Bofors and before the Rafale ever took place then it was during George Fernandes’s tenure as the defence minister.
Shedding his pro-Palestine standpoint, George Fernandes shook hands with the Zionist Israeli ruling clique as per the new foreign and military entête agenda formulated by Vajpayee, Advani and their trusted lackey Brajesh Mishra in 1998. It was during this phase that the purchase of Barak missiles from Zionist Israel was found mired in controversy and there were allegations of cut-money reaching George Fernandes.
It was not only the Barak missile scam, the man who had handled the defence ministry during the Kargil war in 1999 was also accused of being part of a massive scam involving the purchase of aluminium caskets at a very high price to ferry the mortal remains of dead soldiers from the battlefield. This scam shook the foundation of the NDA regime as Vajpayee swept the election in 1999 by playing with the Kargil-related chauvinist sentiments of the middle-class and the elite.
Surprisingly, on 13 December 2001, the day when an intense discussion was on the casket scam, infamous as “Coffingate” scam, was taking place in the Lok Sabha, a group of terrorists launched an attack on the parliament and 12 people, including civilians, died in the cross firings.
After this terrorist attack on the Indian parliament, discussions or debates over the Coffingate scam slowly vanished into the oblivion from public memory as the press got extremely busy with building a narrative over the parliament attack by portraying it as a part of a greater “jihad plan” of terrorists sponsored by Pakistan against a “secular India”. It was the same year in which 9/11 took place and the US had declared a war against Afghanistan. Thus, the content of the terror strike targeting the Indian parliament became the hot-selling news, while the people’s cause was cast into the oblivion.
In 2001 itself, an investigative journalism portal Tehelka published a tape of a sting operation that showed how Jaya Jaitley, George Fernandes’s associate and Samata Party leader, unashamedly took Rs 50,000 as a bribe for a contract on night-vision items from reporters masqueraded as weapon dealers. Though the then BJP president Bangaru Laxman had to step down for being part of the scam, George Fernandes returned back to the cabinet after few months of an exodus. His image, however, didn’t remain untarnished any more. It was now known why he had chosen defence over labour or other portfolios where he could’ve worked with things close to his heart.
AG Noorani wrote the following lines questioning the integrity and the political hypocrisy of George Fernandes in 1999:
“Two constants, however, stand out – unbounded ambition unmatched by aptitude and exhibitionism in the service of opportunism. No one can tell what he stands for. Why did he demand peremptorily of Prime Minister A.Frontline, Volume 16 – Issue 22, 23 October – 5 November 1999
B.Vajpayee, at the swearing-in of his Ministers on March 19, 1998, the Defence portfolio and not Labour, havingflourished as a trade unionist all his chequered life? Why did this noisy champion of the downtrodden and the deprived, this denouncer of economic and social inequalities, adopt silence on these themes and prefer to exercise his lungs on matters of national security on which he had kept his expertise so well concealed all these years?” (sic)
Enlisting his crimes against the working class, his treachery towards the anti-fascist movement, his backstabbing of the country’s trade union movement, especially in Bombay, and his hobnobbing with the Hindutva fascist camp to become a part of the establishment that he once fiercely opposed, becomes a very important task at this juncture of India’s tryst with Hindutva fascism. Uncritically hailing him as a warrior of democracy against Mrs Gandhi’s fascist rule will serve no purpose but help the Sangh Parivar.
Today, as the chief enemy of the Indian people — Hindutva fascism — is brutally attacking the country’s secular fabric and values, the rights of the minority and other marginalised communities enshrined in the Constitution, and is driving the working class and the farmers towards utmost destitution, then it’s not only important to prevent the rise of the progeny of George Fernandes to the position of power and influence, it’s also imperative to expose and oust the existing avatars of George Fernandes in today’s trade union struggle and genuine struggle for the people’s rights. George Fernandes wore many hats but the hat of a scab would define this former minister better forever. An ode to George Fernandes would be an ode to opportunism and political jugglery.