Mangaluru: George Mathew Fernandes, a Mangalurean by birth but a north Indian by parliamentary representation, is a legend from and of Karnataka. He died early this morning in New Delhi at the age of 88.
George Fernandes was many things rolled into one smart package - a firebrand former Indian trade unionist, politician, Member of Parliament, journalist and agriculturist. He was a key member of the Janata Dal and is the founder of the Samata Party. He has held several ministerial portfolios including communications, industry, railways, and defence during his lifetime and each time he made a difference. He was known to be straightforward, honest and very determined.
Born in Mangaluru in 1930, Fernandes grew up and trained to be a priest in Bengaluru and in 1946, he became acquainted with the marginalized, especially the unorganized labour. In 1949, he moved to the erstwhile Bombay, where he joined the socialist trade union movement. As a trade union leader, he organized many many strikes and bandhs in Mumbai in the 1950s and '60s while working with the Indian Railways. Then came a turning point in his life, when he defeated Indian National Congress strongman S K Patil in the 1967 parliamentary elections from the South Bombay (now South Mumbai) constituency. This win earned him the title "George the Giant Killer" and from then on, his political graph rose like an eagle.
In those days, the trade union movement was at its most militant and active stage and Fernandes was in the thick of it. He organised the 1974 Railway strike, when he was president of the All India Railwaymen's Federation. As the trade union movement and other protests against the Indira Gandhi-led government intensified in range and reach, the government imposed the infamous emergency. He went underground to evade arrest and led the underground movement against the emergency. In 1976, he was arrested and tried in the infamous Baroda dynamite case.
As an agitationist, Fernandes was brave and ready to sacrifice his life for the cause. In one incident, he even threw himself on the railway tracks to stop a train during a bandh he had declared himself, in support of the Central government workers, who were on a nationwide strike. He jumped on the tracks at the Dadar station of the Western Railways and was mercilessly beaten up by the police. He was immediately detained under the Defence of India Rules at the Nagpur Central Prison.
Like the present Prime Minister, his oratorical skills were extraordinary and in many ways he used unique methods to communicate with his audiences. He could speak for hours together at worker rallies, fire crowds up with gusto and then one hour later, return to the negotiating table to seal a deal for his union members- mostly in Mumbai where he was active among the workers of BEST, Railways and the Municipal Corporation. His inter-personal skills came from his extraordinary ability to remember faces and names and his linguistic ability. He spoke at least five languages fluently, including Hindi, and it was a tragedy that in his last few years, he suffered from Dementia- a group of conditions that impairs at least two brain functions, such as memory loss and judgement.
In 1977, after the emergency was lifted, Fernandes won the Muzaffarpur seat in Bihar from jail by a landslide and was appointed as Union Minister for Industries. He was the originator of the "Make in India" movement. During his tenure as Union minister, he ordered American multinationals such as IBM and Coca-Cola to leave the country for investment violations and came up with the Double Seven (77) Cola, which went out of fashion after Thums Up (an Indian brand) helped India "taste the thunder".
As defence minister in the Vajpayee Cabinet from October 21, 2001 to May 22, 2004, he oversaw the Kargill war and the coffins required for its casualties. He was preceeded by Jaswant Singh and succeeded by Bharat Ratna Pranab Mukerjee.
Fernandes' ministerial stints, however, were short lived especially as Minister of Railways in the Cabinet of V P Singh, an office he held from December 2, 1989 to November 10, 1990. But each time he held office, he made a difference to millions of ordinary Indians- that is indeed the source of his greatness.
He was the driving force behind the Konkan Railway project, which is now the lifeline of commuters between Mumbai, Goa and Mangaluru during his tenure as railway minister from 1989 to 1990. He was a defence minister in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government (1998–2004), when the Kargil War broke out between India and Pakistan and India conducted its nuclear tests at Pokhran. A veteran socialist, Fernandes has been dogged by various controversies, including the Barak Missile scandal and the Tehelka affair. He stepped down as defence minister in 2004 after the "Coffingate" scandal erupted. He was later absolved by two commissions of inquiry. The Tehelka expose also cast a shadow on his final years in office.
George Fernandes won a total of nine Lok Sabha elections between 1967 and 2004. He was a parliamentarian last as a member of the Rajya Sabha in 2009-2010.
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