George Fernandes, The Firefighter
Recalling one of India’s tallest politicians — George Fernandes. An excerpt from Life Among The Scorpions, the autobiography of Fernandes’ closest ally, Jaya Jaitly.
Coalitions are tricky. Each constituent looks for extra leverage, and the tensions between the leading party and its allies are always below the surface. Anyone rocking the boat is condemned by all.
Post the 1980s, many fell away because George Fernandes gave the fight against injustice greater priority than acquiring power. An example of this was his decision to resign from the Janata government in 1979, despite having personally suffered the excesses of the Emergency. Essentially, the Janata government of 1977 was a coalition government in which parties had technically submerged their identities for what turned out to be a very short period. He had then defended the government powerfully in Parliament in 1979 upon the request of prime minister Morarji Desai. Overnight, he changed his stance, shocking and deeply disappointing his socialist colleagues and the rest of the country. During the night, having tried his utmost to persuade the Left parties headed by Jyoti Basu, and other senior colleagues in government, not to contribute to the imminent collapse of the government, he was subjected to a long political and finally emotional argument by Madhu Limaye. Limaye failed to convince George Fernandes with his ideological arguments to resign on the issue of the Jan Sangh’s dual membership in the RSS. Finally, he lobbed him a big sentimental ball: “Do all our years of friendship mean nothing to you?” he asked. At that point George Fernandes stood up and said, “Madhu, if it all comes down to just that, I will submit my resignation tomorrow morning.” And that is what happened.
George Fernandes’s action had many unpleasant repercussions. The ones that dogged him as an individual lasted almost a decade. He was well aware of the negative impact his political reputation suffered because of his old comrade-in-arms Madhu Limaye; however, although he visited the latter less often after that, he never said anything to blame him.
George Fernandes fought his way out of an almost isolated political existence by leading the battle against the Rajiv Gandhi government’s reported corruption in the Bofors and HDW submarine deals. He constantly hurtled through the length and breadth of the country for trade union gatherings. During this time, he also played midwife in the delivery of VP Singh as an alternative “clean” leader. It was during this entire period that I believe he decided that he would never again be responsible for the fall of a government which he helped create and thus became a disciplined soldier in other coalition periods.
In late 1989, as the National Front government set itself up, the walls of power came up alongside. VP Singh, with his typical caginess, kept even his closest colleagues on tenterhooks, informing them that they would become ministers only half an hour before they were expected to be sworn in. Some eager ones were said to have already got their bandhgala suits, ones with tight necks, stitched in anticipation. Everyone seemed to be waiting anxiously for an advance indication from the prime minister, but that did not happen. George Sahib nonchalantly went upstairs for an afternoon nap and had no time to change into a fresh kurta when he was woken up and told to reach Rashtrapati Bhavan in 20 minutes. His colleagues and I sat in the office downstairs in his tiny apartment at Hauz Khas, amazed at the lack of dignity in the way this was done. Everyone felt ridiculous.
A day or so after the swearing in of the council of ministers, the portfolios were announced. George Fernandes was astounded that he had been allocated the Ministry of Railways. He said he had led the biggest railway strike in Asia and headed railway unions. How could he be sitting across them at the table now? For three days he refused to go to Rail Bhavan to attend office. Finally, VP Singh assured him he would change his portfolio after three months. That never happened. George Fernandes went to office in his old diesel Premier Padmini car driven by his Mumbai colleague Freddie D’Sa. The guard at the ministry’s entrance wouldn’t let him in and told him to get an entrance slip made at the reception first. He hadn’t recognised the new boss who had arrived with no prior information or pomp and splendour.
During George Fernandes’s time in the Ministry of Railways, we tried to introduce handloom cloth for railway uniforms, sheets and towels, and earthen kulladhs (clay cups) for tea in trains. We formed potters’ co-operatives to organise supply systematically. The trade unions, under George Fernandes, printed thousands of leaflets I had created, that if passengers and unions demanded to use handlooms and earthen pots, the livelihoods of many thousands of weavers and potters could be supported. It just meant ordering material from a different source. The money allocations would not increase but only be redirected to the more needy suppliers. I worked on these aspects as a trade union and party activist while George Fernandes implemented very long-standing demands like the construction of the Chhitauni-Bagaha bridge between Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the Konkan Railway along the western coast, and initiated work on the Delhi Metro Rail project.
In 1998, the NDA government chose George Fernandes as the convener of the alliance. He had helped draft the Common Agenda for Governance and was considered by the BJP to have given it the legitimacy required to reassure all the dithering “are we secular/are we not?” allies to come on board to give it a clear majority. This alienated many of his socialist colleagues like Madhu Dandavate and Surendra Mohan but even they were divided between the younger and more ambitious ones who stayed because they wanted to pursue an active political life and felt George Fernandes was the best bet to help them achieve it in alliance with the BJP. He always felt happier being among colleagues with a fighting spirit who had a strong nose for electoral politics. Thus he ignored those who were alienated unless they too came occasionally to ask for small personal favours like school and hospital admissions, which he happily facilitated. As mentioned earlier, party workers and even coalition partners constantly asked for favours, from cash to free travel passes to positions on committees that would give their acolytes some clout; there were requests for even getting children who had failed their examinations to be cleared and accepted at interviews. He was always angered or saddened by this, wondering where the fervour to serve without asking for anything in return was disappearing. Most such people nursed grouses against him thereafter, grumbling that if other parties and politicians helped their people, why he could not. It was just not his style to distribute patronage and largesse, since he had never demanded such things for himself. A lot of the time antagonisms built up against me because of my role as messenger of negative news to these favour-seekers but it did not seem to bother George Sahib in the least that I was the “fall guy”. I grumbled, but did it anyway.
The role as convener of the NDA was sometimes a disappointment for George Fernandes. He thought that there should be a proper mechanism for consultation and coordination between allies so that any political or policy matters could be smoothened out before being made to look like ideological disagreements which were strictly to be kept out of the common agenda. When in the first year of the NDA, something like the singing of Vande Mataram in schools in Uttar Pradesh came up, the media chased different coalition partners for their comments, hoping disparate responses would emerge to show dissonance among them. Some nudging must have come from the Congress behind the scenes since the media loved to create headlines like “Mamata and Samata cause headaches for the BJP” or words to that effect. I didn’t hear any defence on the Vande Mataram issue coming from the BJP. Thus when the media rushed to me expecting a negative reaction, I stated what George Fernandes had said to me earlier in the day: “It has been sung in Parliament for quite some time and the practice was introduced by a Congressman. Hindus and Muslims have sung it together during the freedom movement so why should it be considered objectionable now?” But this was all very ad hoc and uncoordinated. Now that the BJP has a majority in Parliament, playing one off the other doesn’t get anyone anywhere.
As convener, George Fernandes was expected to be the prime minister’s firefighter and political headache remover — termed Sankat Mochan (saviour from troubles). He readily agreed to visit trouble-spots like Orissa when Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons were murdered, or when nuns were allegedly raped. He went to West Bengal in a delegation with Mamata Banerjee to visit victims who were raped supposedly by party workers of the Left government in power at that time. Even then, “communal rapes”, i.e. rapes happening in states under BJP rule, were highlighted by the media and the opposition, while similar incidents under “secular” rule were underplayed. They hated the fact that George Fernandes was content playing the role of the secular face of the “Right-wing Hindu Nationalist” government as the western press described the NDA and took the flak stolidly when he came back to tell the truth about any of these incidents. He would often comment that telling the truth was what made him controversial, as no one liked to hear it if it did not suit their agenda. I often felt the same way. It would rankle them that both of us, despite being staunch socialists, were comfortable with the policies of the government, fought against corrupt industrialists from within (if individuals in the government seemed to be favouring any), and saw no benefit in state control over defunct public sector institutions (that swallowed money and produced no output). He did not believe that the words “Hindu” or “Nationalist” needed to be treated like abuse, as if being either was a crime. He did not go to churches or temples, and accepted the humanity of Christianity, equating it with socialism, while believing in the teachings of the Gita as a tome on the values of life. We would laugh when he heaved a sigh out of exhaustion and sank into a chair after some strenuous activity, saying, “Hey Ram!”, and I would jokingly say to him that he had better not let the secularists hear that.
One important event and its endless ramifications on our polity needs recording as experienced by me personally. I have done this before, elsewhere, but it is too important to leave out of my life’s engagement in public activities. A little déjà vu offering on my part should not be faulted since the Gujarat 2002 riot incidents and accusations have been repeated ad nauseam anyway.
It was my dear friend, colleague and Samata Party MP Dr Betty D’Souza who came rushing to my office space at 3, Krishna Menon Marg, when Parliament stalled immediately upon hearing of the burning of kar sevaks in a train in Godhra, Gujarat. She said that a furore was created by the members of the NDA while the Opposition refused to be part of a unanimous resolution to condemn the gruesome incident. Some muttered that the kar sevaks deserved it. Others said the ruling members were making enough noise on their own, and thus doubted the need for the opposition to add their voice to it. It was callous and short sighted, as it may have led to a calmer reaction to the events in Gujarat if national voices had condemned it. This was the tone adopted by most editorials in the national papers as well, apart from Vir Sanghvi’s editorial which said nothing could justify such barbarity. This resulted in a bandh the next day called by the Bajrang Dal in Gujarat. Late that afternoon, violence ensued.
I remember clearly that George Fernandes rushed in as the evening light was fading. He had been at the prime minister’s residence when they had received a fax from Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, asking for the army to be sent urgently to Ahmedabad to quell the violence.
George Fernandes came away to his residential office, shared this news with me and his personal staff. He ordered for his senior officers to reach Raksha Bhavan immediately. The troops were at that time deployed on a special exercise called Operation Parakram on the Rajasthan border. They were called back hastily and redeployed so that they could reach Gujarat in the early hours of the morning.
This is what I wrote in an article titled “George Fernandes and Gujarat riots” on thenewsminute.com website, on 1 January 2007:
“George Fernandes stayed at Raksha Bhavan for most of the night and himself left for Ahmedabad on the early morning flight. He was soon on the streets of Ahmedabad standing in a truck among the troops. The army helped families escape violent crowds, of which photographs appeared in The Economic Times and others. Harsh Sethi, a well-known Left intellectual wrote in a centre piece in The Hindu sometime later that the army coming out under George Fernandes saved thousands of lives. I know for a fact that Narendra Modi was in constant touch with the Defence Minister and even supported and co-operated when he later organised a citizen’s peace march of 7,000 people, including Muslims, through the city. I too was present. Modi addressed the marchers at the end of its journey, thanking everyone for working towards peace. Interestingly, some newspapers reported this totally peaceful and uneventful march the next day with the headline ‘Fernandes’(s) peace march walks over dead bodies’. There was not a moment’s tension or frustration in the relationship between Modi and Fernandes, whether before or after, and this is a fact even if this has annoyed many Modi-haters and some of Fernandes’(s) socialist compatriots....
“...On a later visit to Gujarat in an all-party delegation in which Sonia Gandhi was also a member, I was confronted by a belligerent youth activist of the Bajrang Dal who asked me to tell George Fernandes to stay away from interfering. I answered that he was no one to speak to me and that George Sahib was asked by the Chief Minister to assist in quelling the riots, and he had responded as was his national duty.”
The all-party delegation referred above was an interesting experience in contrasts. I had written an article in The Indian Express chiding the Congress for accusing the Gujarat government for causing the riots, reminding it of 1984 where its role in the pogrom against Sikhs was well documented. I also explained reasons for the riots in Gujarat from my intimate knowledge of its rural and urban people over years of travel and interactions. I was fiercely attacked in various articles written at the time for having taken this position. The late Pramod Mahajan also noticed my article and put my name as one of those on the delegation to visit Gujarat. I found myself on the flight with various MPs including Sonia Gandhi and SS Ahluwalia. We visited Godhra and spoke with the very articulate woman district magistrate, saw the burnt bogies, and heard how the perpetrators were the remnants of the gangs belonging to a famous Mumbai don.
From Godhra we came to Ahmedabad where Ashok Bhatt, the state health minister and an old socialist, took us to meet the victims. The Godhra burn victims were unrecognisable, burned black to such an extent you could only see their white eyeballs and the pink of the insides of their mouths. In the other wards were the victims of gunshot wounds, knife attacks, broken bones and other injuries. They all said it was terrible for the first few days but they were being looked after now. Sonia Gandhi did not say a word.
We then went to the local municipal hospital which was under a Congress municipal administration. Here, incongruously, two rows of white cap- and kurta-clad youth hailed Sonia Gandhi. She cheered up and spoke to many of the patients. We had meetings with the police chief and other senior officials of the administration. I was a little disappointed at the slightly lax body language of the police officers. It seemed as if they were out of shape and had not been alert enough to prevent a lot of the incidents. Many officials were transferred after that.
At the house of Pravinsinh Jadeja, Samata Party president in Gujarat, I met all our party workers from different localities. Many of them were Muslims. They all said things had been pretty bad but the ministers and administration had responded to every call for help made by them. We also visited some makeshift camps for the victims which were nowhere near as teeming or organised as ours were in 1984.
In later tours to villages where my craftspersons and party workers resided, many old hands among the Muslim community came with their Hindu neighbours and pleaded, “Please, Jaya-ben, ask these NGOs and others to stay away from Gujarat. We are at peace with each other and do not eat our meals unless we are sitting together. Some radical mullahs are being sent to spread trouble. We have bundled some into our cars and sent them away.” I repeated these words at a Telegraph newspaper debate on secularism in Bengal a couple of years later, when these attacks on Narendra Modi would not die down. Interestingly, the whole audience applauded.
I have been unwelcome among many of the intellectual and political elite for defending Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, on many occasions post the 2002 riots. But it was simply because I saw the truth as it was and not as people wished it to be.
Here, it is worthwhile remembering the Bhagalpur riots of October 1989. I became involved in relief work by compelling Sharad Yadav (after he took over in 1990) to find a way for us to donate bundles of dhotis and saris to the victims. I visited scores of powerloom establishments, and weavers’ and tailors’ homes with a team of party workers from Bihar and tried at least to calm my conscience. It was clear to me that it was the large Muslim population that had been attacked and many of those who joined in doing so were part of Lalu Prasad Yadav’s caste. It was because of his interest in protecting the attackers (as was widely believed because of his failure to take any action) that even though some eye-wash commissions were set up later to get to the truth of these riots, they never got off the ground. When Nitish Kumar took over from Lalu Prasad Yadav as Bihar chief minister, the results of the Justice NN Singh inquiry were finally tabled in 2015, indicting the Congress government in Bihar at that time and recording that over a thousand people were killed.
Lalu Prasad Yadav, the subsequent “secular” darling of Delhi’s intelligentsia, came to power on the Mandal wave (burying this ugly riot away from those who point to Gujarat 2002 and Delhi 1984). He has kept his clansmen in check by rushing to Yadav localities when troubles occurred later, to reassure the Muslims that he alone could provide them protection. Lalu further cemented his secular credentials by prevailing upon VP Singh to allow him to arrest LK Advani during the latter’s rath yatra.
Even while George Fernandes took a lot of flak for his personal insight on Nawaz Sharif, China or even statements in Parliament, and on behalf of the perceived ills of the BJP during NDA-I government, he knew he was still often being used by his colleagues in the BJP without any advantage accruing to him or his party. As a coalition partner, it was impossible for us to negotiate even one extra seat prior to elections. Even if the Samata Party candidate was stronger and more likely to win, the larger party in the combine would rather fight and lose than give up the seat to another party, losing its hold in the future. Coalitions are good for a point of time, but otherwise stifling for individual partners and eventually become a contentious mess if too many small parties are involved, too many disparate agendas and ideologies clash. Ultimately, all they have is the ability to threaten to withdraw support as a bargaining chip.
The close rapport between Atal Behari Vajpayee, LK Advani, Jaswant Singh and George Fernandes worked extremely well in matters of handling the Kargil War, or keeping allies on the same page on important policies, especially if George Fernandes was sent as a persuasive emissary to bring them on board. They knew he was totally committed to opposing the Congress, and the Samata Party had remained a comfortable ally in Bihar. They respected his political stands on most things. He was always ready to do this as he was determined not to be the cause of a non-Congress government falling this time, no matter what he or his colleagues lost as a result. His efforts to keep chief minister and head of the AIADMK, Jayalalithaa, for the short period that she supported the NDA, was hilarious. She threatened to pull out at the slightest pretext and he found himself rushing to Chennai all too often. None was supposed to know of many of these trips as we were all sworn to secrecy. The most crucial one was when it seemed likely she would pull the plug on prime minister Vajpayee’s first opportunity to speak from the ramparts of the Red Fort. On the overnight dash to save the day, Sasikala, close aide of the Tamil Nadu chief minister, served Jayalalithaa and George Fernandes an elaborate many-coursed lunch with expensive Baskin Robbins ice cream at the end. George Fernandes meekly ate that in the larger interests of government stability much against his swadeshi preference for Amul ice cream.
Interestingly, his troubles were more within the Samata Party, with many political leaders from Bihar working at cross purposes, and fighting or making up with Nitish Kumar, while George Fernandes had the miserable task of keeping everyone placated and in place. He always said Nitish Kumar was one person whose mind he could never fathom. A democrat before all else, it would be frustrating for him when Nitish Kumar refused to agree upon a date to hold a meeting of the National Executive, or overturned a consensus arrived during such meetings by visiting him alone later at night with his view which he insisted on being implemented. Often, this made the party lose good people to the BJP; these people who would often spend time having tea with me and sharing their woes about Nitish Kumar. I thought it my duty to convey such matters to George Fernandes, but I knew too that it would inadvertently add to his anxieties. He would always give in to him rationalising the irrational for the sake of a larger goal.
I am sure the tensions he suffered throughout his entire tenure in the Ministry of Defence in matters concerning security, politics of coalitions, the party, lack of party funds, and disappointment with issues like Bofors which were not taken to their logical ends, added to the neurological ailment building up silently in his brain. The final nail in the coffin could perhaps have been the humiliation George Fernandes suffered by being rejected as the rightful candidate for his own beloved constituency of Muzaffarpur in a rude and cursory manner by the party colleagues. By the end, I saw his many frustrations being translated into far too many extended silences.
As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.
Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.
We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.
Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.