George Fernandes was arrested during the Emergency in what became known as the Baroda Dynamite case.
George Mathew Fernandes, the stormy petrel of Indian politics, has passed into history at the age of 88. He had contracted swine flu a few days earlier.
The giant killer, who earned the sobriquet in 1967 Lok Sabha elections for trouncing then uncrowned king of Bombay SK Patil in his South Bombay bastion, was ravaged by passages of time. The shock defeat ended the political career of Congress stalwart.
Suffering from both Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease for the past decade, the Socialist veteran was often at the center of unseemly court cases between his wife Leila Kabir and longtime companion Jaya Jaitley.
To a generation that attained political baptism from rebellion against the Emergency imposed by the Indira Gandhi government in 1975-77, the picture of George Fernandes standing at his prison cell holding his chained hands high had the same aura as Che Guevera’s photographs had done a decade earlier. It helped George win from Muzaffarpur in absentia in 1977 general elections.
George Fernandes was arrested during the Emergency in what became known as the Baroda Dynamite case. The Socialist Party doyen had obtained huge stock of dynamite sticks to overawe the government by blowing up government installation.
The Janata Party government under Prime Minister Morarji Desai saw the perennial rebel become the industries minister. His tenure is remembered for the exit from the country of multinational corporations IBM and Coca Cola. The minister had asked the wholly owned subsidiaries of foreign US-based companies to reduce their stake in Indian companies to a maximum of 40%. George remained a rebel without a pause and at times without a cause.
George’s conduct often remained inexplicable to his friends and critics alike. Exasperating was his decision to join hands with Charan Singh to bring down the Morarji Desai government a day after stoutly defending it in the Lok Sabha. I had stopped thinking was all he would often say to those who queried him on the issue.
Years later, the veteran Socialist leader decided to join hands with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The decision shocked his ardent admirers as in 1979 George Fernandes had demanded the expulsion of erstwhile Jana Sangh members from the Janata Party for dual membership of the Rashtriya Swayemsewak Sangh.
George’s term as defense minister was marred by controversy over the Barak missile and Tehelka scandal. A staunch believer in disarmament, he supported nuclear tests conducted in Pokharan by the Vajpayee government.
Born on June 3, 1930, in Mangalore, George Fernandes was an aspiring Catholic priest and spent two years in a seminary in Bangalore before he found his true calling in trade unionism. He moved to Bombay, now Mumbai, and cut his teeth in trade unionism in the 1950s and 60s.
George’s rise in Bombay trade unionism was fast and in the 1960s and 1970s, he could bring the city to a standstill with a single call. The taxi drivers’ unions were his most loyal supporters and formed the backbone of his activities in other sectors as well.
The highest point of his career as a trade unionist came in 1974 when as president of All India Railwaymen’s Federation he led a nationwide strike by the railway staff. The Indira Gandhi government responded with firmness and till then an unprecedented show of state power. Many striking employees were sacked and evicted from their homes in late night crackdown.
Baroda dynamite case became a cause celebre and another feather in George’s cap.
They don’t make men like George anymore.