George Fernandes, the Giant Killer: Remembering the “Explosive” Life of the Former Defence Minister

Politics

George Fernandes, the Giant Killer: Remembering the “Explosive” Life of the Former Defence Minister

Illustration: Arati Gujar

T

ime has a habit of dissolving details. Our minds hold on to only those most prominent happenings of the past and the how, why, and who of each are allowed to slip and be mostly forgotten. But when we allow ourselves the luxury of delving deeper, certain names crop up more often than others, telling us that their part in all of it was perhaps what moulded those events into their final shape. When examining the political milestones of India over the last half-century, George Fernandes’ name jumps out in such a manner.

I will admit, like most of us might, that hearing of his demise did not send me down any paths of nostalgia. After all, it has been a while since he was active in politics. But a cursory review of his political career made me wonder why his life had not been made into a film yet.

For better or worse, between the 1970s and the turn of the century, Fernandes wove his way through the fabric of some of India’s most poignant political episodes. The Emergency of 1975-1977, the Kargil War, the nuclear tests at Pokhran – most of us know these as significant events. Fernandes influenced them all, either directly or indirectly. A fierce critic of Indira Gandhi, he was the poster boy of the anti-Emergency protests, and as defence minister in the Vajpayee government, he oversaw the Pokhran tests and the Kargil war.  

Known as a firebrand socialist, George Fernandes’ entry into union politics happened at the age of 19. Prior to this, he was studying to be a priest, but quit because of the rigid hierarchy of the Catholic Church. This strain of belief – that no man must sit below another – became the basis of his socialist beliefs and the cornerstone of his political ideology.

As a trade unionist, he pushed his socialist agenda in a constant and unyielding manner.

Image Credits: Getty Images

As a trade unionist, he pushed his socialist agenda in a constant and unyielding manner. He was determined to stand up for oppressed workers and served time in prison for his efforts. Eventually this trajectory saw him rise to the head of the largest union within the Indian Railways and it was here that he started making some real noise.

The Railway Strike of 1974 – organised by Fernandes in protest against the poor standard of living of railway workers – is said to have brought the nation to its knees. It lasted for just under three weeks and is considered to be one of the events that led Indira Gandhi, fearful of the level of insecurity within the nation, to call an Emergency the following year.

George Fernandes had his fair share of scandals and even relinquished his post as defence minister at one point, returning only after he was acquitted.

During Emergency, Fernandes showcased a more militant side. A staunch opponent of the Gandhi dynasty (he would later speak in support of the LTTE against Rajiv Gandhi and once had Sonia Gandhi’s portrait removed from Delhi’s Constitution Club), he began to reveal that he was not above using force to make his point. No doubt his experience with the unions and with prison had made violence a part of his life. His plan to cause explosions around the areas where Indira Gandhi would be speaking became what would be called the Baroda Dynamite Case. It should be noted that his intention was only to scare, not injure anyone. Nonetheless, the plot was foiled, and Fernandes was again sent to prison. From prison he would go on to contest his first election (this is India, after all), and win despite never visiting his constituency!

His victory, and that of the Janata Party of which he was a part, saw him appointed as the Union Minister for Industries in 1977. His moniker – Giant Killer – was given because he won against a strong incumbent, against astonishing odds.

In office, he continued his pro-swadeshi crusade by driving out key multinational companies – most notably Coca-Cola and IBM – from India. His moves set into action a lot of protectionist policies that would not unravel until the economy was opened by the reforms in 1991.

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The truth was that he remained – to the very end – a fierce supporter of “the little guy”.

Image Credits: Getty Images

Over the next 20 years, Fernandes’ fortunes saw highs and lows against the backdrop of a volatile political scene in India. With Congress regaining power first under Indira Gandhi and then under Rajiv Gandhi, there was no place for the firebrand other than to sit in opposition and bide his time. He did enjoy one year as Railway Minister (from 1989 to 1991) and is said to have used this opportunity to launch the Konkan Railway Project, which ran from his home town of Mangalore up to Mumbai.

After Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, governments were being formed and dissolved at an alarming rate. No Prime Minister seemed to be able to last a full term until the BJP – as part of the National Democratic Alliance – won in 1998 and Fernandes was rewarded for his patience with the defence portfolio.

To say he had a colourful stint as defence minister would being saying too little.

In May 1998, India began testing nuclear weapons in Pokhran. Underlining its refusal to go along with the Non-Proliferation Treaty, India was readying itself under Fernandes for a potential clash with Pakistan. Earlier a proponent of nuclear disarmament, Fernandes was said to have a picture of the Hiroshima bombing in his office, suggesting his penchant for explosions had stayed with him through the years.

The following year, the Kargil War broke out and the world held its breath as two nuclear capable nations (Pakistan had recently concluded its own tests) entered into conflict. Although the war concluded within two months, it set the scene for border tensions that continue until this day.

Following the loss of the NDA in 2004, Fernandes never regained any of the political heights he had once reached. His health dwindled rapidly and although he did win a seat in the Rajya Sabha in 2009, by the following year he was said to be suffering from both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

To say that his career was without controversy, would be misleading. He had his fair share of scandals and even relinquished his post as defence minister at one point, returning only after he was acquitted. However, it does show poorly to besmirch a man on the day of his death so let us, for now, focus on the positives. The truth was that he remained – to the very end – a fierce supporter of “the little guy”. He was willing to abandon support of his party to stay true to his belief, even if it meant shaking the system and deposing himself of power or even his freedom. As politicians go these days, you could be remembered for a lot worse.

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