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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 9 New Delhi February 16, 2019

George Fernandes — A Lifelong Rebel and Coalition-builder

Sunday 17 February 2019



by Shambhu Shrivastava

The best tribute to George Fernandes would be to acknowledge the fact that nobody, just nobody ever treated him as a Christian. He was always treated as a front-ranking leader of post-independence India. He was a true embodiment of the idea of India. This fact assumes great meaning in the times we live in when religious and caste identity of a person has become a badge of honour.

George was a lifelong rebel. His family sent him to a Christian seminary for training as a priest, but he rebelled and was expelled from the seminary. In no time, he became a socialist and moved to Bombay. Not many people know that in the early years in Bombay he slept on street-side pavements. But he persisted and became a great trade union and socialist leader and a Member of Parliament from, out of all the places, South Mumbai.

I worked closely with George Fernandes for about 10 years as the General Secretary and spokesperson of the Samata Party. I had the good fortune to learn a lot from him, both as a person and as a political leader. I travelled with him to many remotest parts of India. It was obvious during the travels that he was the most connected person in every part of India. When we stayed in guest houses or at some party worker’s place, people from all parties and all sections of life came to meet him.

George Fernandes was a true Gandhian and lived very simple. His house was an open house where anybody could walk in or out. He spoke many languages fluently and this helped him to connect with people across India.

Today, when George Fernandes is no more, we must recall a particular quality of him which I saw from very close quarters, that of a coalition builder. If the Vajpayee Government lasted smoothly for six years as a successful coalition, it was largely due to his tireless efforts and Atalji’s flexibility and generous nature.

The first crisis to the Vajpayee Government came in August 1998, which came to a point whether the AIADMK would withdraw support to the NDA Government before August 15. I recall George travelling to Chennai to meet Jayalalitha and returning on 14th night having warded off the crisis. Hence, Atalji hoisted the national flag on Red Fort as a full-fledged Prime Minister and not as a caretaker.

George had a great personal equation with many leaders including M. Karunanidhi, Prakash Singh Badal, NTR, Mulayam Singh Yadav and, hold your breath, many Congress leaders. Left leaders will be surprised to know that he was a very regular reader of New Age and People’s Democracy.

He was against what he called ‘politics of untouchability’. He freely interacted with RSS leaders but he also asked me once to draft a strong statement advising the RSS to confine itself to cultural and social activities. He believed in dialogue and full freedom of expression. He championed human rights across the globe and took up many causes which were otherwise considered lost.

George Fernandes was an action-oriented leader and not an ‘ideologue’ as the word is understood. But knowing him from close quarters, I can say that he had great intellectual depth. He read a lot, spoke a lot, but did not write in an organised manner. In the mid-1990s, one of his areas of interest was European politics, post-the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1995, many a time during the election campaign in Bihar, he would specifically ask for me to discuss Europe. The reason was that he knew my Marxist background and acquaintance with East European politics.

Personally, I never endorsed the Samata Party’s decision to go with the BJP to form the NDA despite the party’s opposition to the Ram temple, Article 370 and uniform civil code. But, George was always conscious that the basic consensus in socialist and Leftist circles on certain issues was not compromised. I limit myself to two incidents.

When NATO forces, led by the US, attacked Iraq, there was huge pressure from the US on India that the Indian Army should join the aggression. The Cabinet Committee on Security was divided, and George was against Indian troops being sent to Iraq. I was in Dimapur, campaigning for the Samata Party during the Nagaland elections when I got an urgent call from George Fernandes to be back in Delhi immediately. In Delhi, he told me that some people in the government were talking of the ‘middle path’ which was unacceptable. I realised that as a Minister in the NDA Government he could not take a public position. So, he wanted me to articulate strong opposition to the move on behalf of the party as the spokesperson. We did that and the move was dropped and finally Parliament passed a resolution condemning the US invasion of Iraq.

Similarly, when a reckless disinvestment policy was being pursued, he asked the party to oppose it and finally he gave a call for a ‘mid-course correction’ of economic policies during Atalji’s rule.

Memories are flooding me. It is impossible to write more today. Good bye, George. Heaven is no longer safe from rebellion!

The author is a former spokesperson and erstwhile General Secretary of the Samata Party.

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