Hosannas to a Gadfly
George Mathew Fernandes was an ace trade unionist, free thinker and a minister, who held portfolios like communication, industry, railways and defence. He organized an All India Railway strike in 1974, went underground during the emergency and was tried in the infamous Baroda dynamite case. He won the Muzaffarpur Lok Sabha seat, while behind bars and drove out the American MNCs, IBM and Coca Cola for investment violations. He was the driving force behind the Konkan railway project as the railway minister (1989-90).
He has always been dogged by controversy and MoD was his political epiphany where he served from (1998-2004). During his tenure, India conducted the nuclear test at the Pokhran range. Though, a staunch supporter of nuclear disarmament, he openly endorsed NDA government’s decision to test the nuclear bombs. He was also involved in the sacking of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, PVSM, AVSM, (CNS) as he defied a cabinet decision to promote VC Harinder Singh, whom he considered as corrupt! This was the time when the Kargil war (1999) at its apogee. He was dogged by a slew of scandals over the purchase of Barak missiles, aluminum coffins for Kargil martyrs by the CAG team. Mr. Tarun Tejpal’s Tehelka team gave him a torrid time, with their sting operation to unleash sleaze and dealings in a fake arms deal.
V.K. Krishna Menon was the original gadfly of Ministry of Defence with a Jeep Scandal. Menon was prickly with the forces, favoured inefficient generals and courted Jawaharlal. The 1962 fiasco with the Chinese was largely this handi work. George, is the second political gadfly who called Mrs. G a habitual liar and the family as looters. He was embroiled in a controversy for allegedly taking 3% commission for purchasing Barak Missiles. The CBI gave him a clean chit in 2013 for purchase of these 200 missiles from Israel. Congress, which they lead the charge against him, bought the same missiles (262 nos.) in 2015. Eyebrows were raised! History is now repeating itself in the Rafael deal, with the Congress & BJP trading charges with the fence changing position!
I worked with him briefly in those tumultuous years (1998-99). He was very quick on the uptake and had no patience for dilatory financial advisors in the South Block. He sent them to Siachen, as they were sitting over a proposal for importing snow scooters! He was anguished when the Congress tried to pillory him on purchase of aluminum caskets for Kargil martyrs at exorbitant cost. The CAG had made a huge case against him; though tad unfairly! He used to say: ‘I don’t drink the blood of martyrs’. The Supreme Court closed the case in 2015.
Jaya Jaitly writes in her recent book “A Life Among the Scorpions: Memoirs of a Woman in Indian Politics” that she and George were unfairly hounded by the CBI and Tarun Tejpal and his cohort. She also writes that the cares George showed towards human beings formed the singular attribute that George can be identified with. He would carry airline toffees to his next destination in case there was a little child or a dog he met. He was like his intellectual mentor, Karl Marx about whom, Bertrand Russell wrote “Marx was lovable towards children, for whom he used to carry chocolates. They called him Daddy Marx”.
George was both charismatic and controversial; and surely the brightest and most informal Defence Minister I have met. He was a people’s person, and Jawans’ delight. He used to carry cakes for them during Christmas to the Siachen glaciers! He was extremely fond of music. I recall, for the bicentenary celebration of Gun and Shell Factory, Cossipore, in 2002 Late Bhupen Hazarika, the legendary singer from Assam (Bharat Ratna Awardee this year) was invited to sing. George knew him well and was almost an accompanist on the stage. Strobe Talbott in his book “Engaging India-Diplomacy, Democracy & the Bomb”, has written that Mr. Fernandes was strip searched at the Dulles airport, when he was a Defence Minister. The US Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Lee Armitage personally apologized to Fernandes over the matter. The Americans do not take kindly to take any one who takes on their MNCs like IBM & Coca Cola, as George did. He could take the high and mighty, without batting an eye lid. He was a prince amongst the politicians, and a darling to the commoners. As his ashes get consigned today, after long years of suffering of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, his long time partner (Jaya) and estranged wife (Leila) fight for his mortal remains. Even in death, George can court controversy! He was a gadfly; par excellence.