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George Fernandes: an independent, persistent fighter

A new biography dissects former defence minister George Fernandes’ career-long fight against the Congress

As defence minister from 1998-2004, George Fernandes often visited the troops.  (Courtesy Fredrick D’Sa, Bombay Taximen’s Union)

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On 19 August 2003, Congress moved a no-confidence motion against the NDA government in Parliament where defence and national security, and ultimately George (Fernandes, then defence minister), were the main planks of its attack. The motion moved by the leader of the Opposition Sonia Gandhi evoked one of the most tepid of such debates in the history of Indian democracy. The mover laboriously read her litany of woes from a written script in English, and her CPI supporter Somnath Chatterjee as if in compensation read his written speech haltingly in Hindi. The only time the debate acquired some urgency was when George rose to speak. Sonia Gandhi had started by raising questions on defence and national security; she had questioned the defence minister’s probity and integrity. Although Sonia Gandhi made oblique references to corruption in defence purchases, it was Somnath Chatterjee who laid out in clear terms why he supported the no-confidence motion or why it was moved. The reason was George.

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At the time of his resignation in March 2001, he had said he would only return after having been exonerated from all allegations (of corruption in the coffin and Tehelka scams). But contrary to the profession, he was reinstated after a gap of time. ‘Why was he taken in?’ he asked. This made the Opposition gang up. Somnath Chatterjee asked the prime minister to clear the matter. ‘It is about his conscience. He has to tell the people.’ …

George spoke on the matter after a gap of twenty-two months, launching his defence from where Sonia Gandhi had accused him. He said the NDA government ‘have given (such) acceleration to the desired modernization in the field of defence that today all the three wings of the armed forces are having the weapons of strategic importance which were not available previously’. About the allegation of corruption in defence purchases, George thundered that ‘one is not born as yet who can bribe me’. Angrily, he asked, ‘I have fought against corruption throughout my life and today I have become corrupt?’ …

                                                 ..…

Sonia Gandhi had been speaking very derisively about George, accusing him of stealing money out of coffins meant for martyred army jawans. She had spoken of the allegation extensively in her election campaigns. Her party had boycotted him in Parliament and hadn’t allowed him to speak. Every day when he came to the House, he heard just one refrain, coffin-chor, coffin-chor. After twenty-two months of persistent finger-pointing, George finally had a chance to hammer in his point and he succeeded. ‘I have spent 37 years in this House. I have not been here to suck the blood of jawans but to save this country from thieves. I am a man who works for the benefit of jawans by risking my own life.’ The so far limp debate suddenly became boisterous. Sloganeering Opposition members took to the floor. Pandemonium reigned. Assuming that order could only be restored if members were discouraged from playing to the gallery, the live telecast of the debate was repeatedly suspended.

When it was the turn of Atal Bihari Vajpayee to respond, he minced no words in eulogizing George. ‘Sir,’ Vajpayee said, ‘during this two-day discussion one heartening development has taken place. The long boycott of my friend and colleague George Fernandes has come to an end.’ He said he abhorred such practices in a parliamentary democracy. ‘What kind of untouchability it is?’ …

He extolled George’s patriotism. ‘He endured humiliation and faced insult but did not deviate from his path of duty. In Tehelka scandal, neither any charge was levelled against him, nor he was convicted and nor any explanation was sought from him.’ He lauded George as an exceptional defence minister the like of whom the country had never had before. ‘Whether it is desert or snow-clad valley of Siachen, whenever he has gone to border, he has always boosted the morale of our soldiers which has not been done by any other defence ministers before. To level false charges without any proof and then not allow him to speak, was justice done to him?’

But in fact, after removing him on charges that were never levelled against him, reinstating him was more patronizing than justifying George’s innocence. Others who had been named adversely in the Tehelka tapes had continued to remain in the government. George, the socialist in crumpled kurta, a man staking his everything on a struggle, indefatigable in fighting the battle for and of underdogs, being accused of financial corruption, was an undoing of a passionately led life.

 

In 2003, in a bid to dispel the idea that the IAF’s MiG-21 was a ‘flying coffin’, Fernandes took a 25-minute flight in one.
In 2003, in a bid to dispel the idea that the IAF’s MiG-21 was a ‘flying coffin’, Fernandes took a 25-minute flight in one. (Getty Images)

The Tehelka sting was a widow’s wrath, figuratively if not literally. George could not even bring himself to call Sonia Gandhi by her name. A few months later, when he was no longer in the government, the successor government would open for scrutiny all the defence purchases just to harass him, and he would say, there is a witch hunt going on, but with one difference, here witches are hunting. It was a logical culmination of his politics. It was an attempt to harm him irreparably by the use of the very tools that he had employed to beat Rajiv Gandhi on his defence deals (in the 1980s). In those days he had openly claimed that there was an inbuilt factor of kickbacks in every defence deal, for distribution among politicians and bureaucrats. He held Rajiv Gandhi guilty simply because he had held the defence portfolio. The sharpness of his attack on the Nehru-Gandhi family had to have no other outcome than this.

His political rhetoric had been reduced to his unceasing disparagement of the Congress and its custodians in the Nehru-Gandhi family. Even the gruesome murder of Graham Stuart Staines, a dedicated Christian missionary who had come to India in his youth and stayed on to serve the leprosy patients among the tribals of Orissa, burnt alive along with his minor sons in their vehicle (in 1999), was explained away by him by citing several anti-Christian incidents that had happened during the Congress regimes in the state. In the years that Rajiv Gandhi was active in politics, he had always written of him, heavy with scorn, as nothing but R. Gandhi. He attacked the dynasty, for its continuation and its progressive imbecility. The dynasty had successively robbed India of its democratic process, fomented elite politics to the exclusion of the masses, created and fanned divisions within Indian society in order to perpetuate itself. If his attack was based on facts, there was also an element of extreme malice in it.

If the Congress was fixated on its dynasty for survival, the nature of George’s political engagement, driven as it was partially from a personal history of having suffered at the hands of its various governments, was fixated on both the Congress and its seemingly invulnerable dynasty. He had believed that any kind of ideological politics in India could only have a beginning after the Congress and its dynasty was removed. The kind of vehemence the Congress (and the RJD) showed in opposing him could only be explained by the way their leadership took up his opposition to them: they saw it directed personally at them and therefore he too was to be attacked at the personal level.

 

‘The Life And Times Of George Fernandes: Many Peaks Of A Political Life’, by Rahul Ramagundam, Penguin Random House India, 624 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>799.
‘The Life And Times Of George Fernandes: Many Peaks Of A Political Life’, by Rahul Ramagundam, Penguin Random House India, 624 pages, 799.

Every action of his as an incumbent minister was either turned against him or used to expose him to the charge of insincerity. He left a mixed legacy as a defence minister of India. He was shown to be a man seeking power, and being in the saddle at the cost of his own past, at the cost of everything that he had stood for, compromising his deepest convictions. Sitting on a powder keg, inextricably tied in a knot of his own making, George’s underplaying, even condoning, of the violence in Gujarat on the pretext that similar heinous crimes had occurred under Congress regimes as well, and therefore there was nothing shocking about it, was a statement of helplessness. His non-Congressism was long dead, but he had trudged on the same path. By the end of his career, George was seeking to place himself within the state power rather than being true to his resolve, expressed in the early 1970s, to always be with the people and never for the government. He had then said that when a trade unionist enters into the government, he compromises himself, becomes an SOB.

Excerpted with permission from The Life And Times Of George Fernandes: Many Peaks Of A Political Life, by Rahul Ramagundam.

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