December 28, 2013
At his home lone, distanced and isolated is the Old man resting on an arm chair, listening to the children’s choir. He can dimly hear and hum them by nodding to the tunes. At eighty three, he remains physically fit but his memories have all faded away, he suffers from Alzheimer and Parkinson diseases. He can only utter a few words, interpret his mother tongue Konkani, and can barely recognize people. In the last century, the Old man was never the same, our country can only remember him as a firebrand union leader turned fierce politician who gave sleepless nights to the corporate dons and seasoned politicians in his hey days.
George Fernandes is largely dismissed and forgotten by his allies and enemies. Shooting back, years ago as a union leader and later a politician, Fernandes played a dominant role in workers activism, labour welfare and largely the left wing union movement in India. In the late fifties and throughout sixties, George Fernandes became a household name in Bombay as he was able to galvanize mass worker support and organize radical activism against establishment, creating a rage amongst working youth in the city. Those were the days when Mumbai used to be called as Bombay and Bala Sab Thackeray was still a Political Cartoonist.
During the 1967 general elections, following his commanding success and rising fame, fernandes was roped by samyukta socialist party ( a segment of CPI Marxist). And was braced to contest against seasoned politician SK Patil ( Sadashiv Kanoji Patil) of the congress Party, who had remained glued in South Bombay region for three successive election years. No one had given a chance for the young, inexperienced fernandes, and even Sk Patil himself pinned down any upsets. But Fernandes and his SSP workers canvassed door to door and grabbed grass root level attention. And for everybody’s surprise, the unthinkable happened, SK patil was defeated and routed out, effectively ending his career, and from then on George Fernandes came to be hailed as the ‘George the Giant Killer’.
Fernandes Poltical career started to surge, while he along with Jantha Party supremo Jay Prakash Narayan and other Left wing Leaders, ferociously opposed Indra Gandhis’ Demoractic Dictatorship. The front page headline in the Indian Express once read ‘Indira Gandhi Must Quit’: Quote George Fernandes. At a Very early stage, he foresaw the dangers emanating from Indira Gandhi’s then Autocratic governance, which later lead to India’s first ever State Emergency, where Democracy was murdered.
But Fernandes hiatus shot in the year 1974, while serving as the president of Railwaymen’s Federation. He along with railway working federation merged with taxi drivers in Bombay, held a strike against Indira Gandhi’s government, demanding review of Pay commission, that soon propelled nation wide. The entire country was brought to standstill on a week long strike.
A year later, unable to withstand the pressures from repulsive public, media and opposition parties, Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister of India, imposed the ‘State of Emergency’, where all the fundamental rights enshrined in the Indian Constitution were suspended. Several reporters, activists and opposition workers were arrested and tortured. Desperate to topple the Autocratic Government, Geroge Fernandes, along with friends in Baroda, plotted to blow up Government offices in the city( during midnight), by smuggling dynamites, ahead of Indira Gandhi’s visit. But the plot failed, and Fernandes was soon captured and put behind bars, for the infamous conspiracy known as the ‘Baroda Dynamite Case’.
That didn’t stop his rage against Indira Gandhi’s government. Headed by Moraji Desai, Janata Party and its allies came to power in the 1977 general elections. George Fernandes was allowed to contest from prison to the little known Muzaffernagar seat in Bihar. Despite not even visiting the constituency, George Fernandes famous photograph standing defiant with hand shackles drew widespread sympathizers, that eventually resulted in his major triumph, with a world record victory margin of 3,00,000 (three lakh) votes.
At a very early age largely due to financial constraints, and being the eldest son fernandes, was sent to the Catholic seminary. There he noticed that, Catholicism had major contradiction in percept and practice. He began to loathe the authoritarian, Hippocratic and exhibitionist lifestyles of priests, And thus decided to quit the seminary and rush to Bombay for livelihood. He was only 19 then, and faced incredibly hardship, spent days and nights doing odd jobs and slept in the pavement, footpaths and ralway stations.
There, He soon came in contact with exploited workers and began to organize them. His proactivism on workers cause gained attention from great socialist leaders like Placid Dmello and Ram Manohar Lohia. By the late fifties Fernandes had won huge admirers among the trade unions.
As soon as Janatha Party rose to power following the 1977 elections, Fernandes was given the Industry portfolio. And once he was granted power, his natural leadership qualities and his undisputed courage to fight for workers withered away, thus ending the chapter of a charismatic union leader. There on Fernandes became a political opportunist and lost his linkage to the common masses and trade union fraternity of the nation. He contested for Bangalore South against Jaffer sheriff in 1984 and lost.
Fernandes was back with a bang, in the late eighties, after Congress Party’s infamous Bofors Scandal. He contested muzaffernagar once again and won. Later, in 1998 when Vajpayee-Advani led NDA rose to power, Fernandes’s Samatha Party joined the coalition, and was awarded the prestigious defense ministry portfolio. In the thick of things, being a vocal opponent of Nuclear Disarmament in the sixties and the seventies, Fernandes made a horrifying U-Turn and endorsed the right wing RSS-BJP decision to conduct five nuclear tests at Pokhran Rajasthan. This further jeopardized the already tense relationship with diabolic Pakistan, which went on to produce a Nuclear Bomb threatening to obliterate India.
George Fernandes may be a forgotten name today, but his legacy stands tall. He created a sense of idealism and desperation among the youth. He was the last of Indian leaders who fought for the cause dear to them. It is also the vigor of Democracy that made a Mangalorean born lad, without any background, to scale up the ladder and rise as a country’s most influential political leader.
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