George Fernandes – The Rebel Who Enjoyed Mainstream Relevance

“Many like myself became disillusioned when George started to embrace the BJP,” writes Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay.

4 min read
Image used for representational purposes.

(This article was first published on 29 January 2019. It has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark the death anniversary of George Fernandes.)

For a large number of Indians across several generations who considered George Fernandes their first political hero (like this writer), he had 'gone away' from them much before he passed away on the morning of 29 January, Tuesday.

On a day like this, when eulogies will pour in abundance, seeking to brush the disquieting beneath the carpet, this too must be recalled.

Despite George Fernandes’s choice being questioned by one-time admirers, when he made a political transition from being a consistent defender of civil and trade union rights and secular values to becoming a consistent ally of the BJP, no one accused the fiery rebel of yore as having an ulterior motive.


George Fernandes’s Unwavering Loyalty to the BJP

George Fernandes chose to lead the Samata Party in the mid-1990s into an unabashed embrace of the BJP, because he honestly believed that anti-Congressism had to be given a new thrust, even if this meant looking at the BJP afresh and not from the binaries of the past. This began the process of legitimising the saffron party as a principal political power and as a party of governance. Life never provided George Fernandes with an opportunity to review his decision post 2014.

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However, Fernandes remained unwavering in his loyalty to the BJP, till ill-health silenced him much before he became forever speechless. His sincerity towards the BJP was reflected in his choice to remain speechless during the 2002 Gujarat riots.

No one could ever confirm if this was Fernandes's way of expressing gratitude towards Modi for having helped him during the Emergency (when he was underground, and travelled from place to place to organise resistance and evade arrest).

On 3 June 2018, that is, Fernandes’s birthday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted ritualistically: “Generations of Indians will remain grateful to George Saheb for his historic role in preserving India’s democracy.” In tweets after his death, Modi again recalled how Fernandes “resisted the Emergency tooth and nail”.

George Fernandes: Every 1970s Indian Middle-Class Teen’s Inspiration

Ironically, the 1970s and decades immediately after, was also the time when no prime minister or any leader of the ruling party labelled a revolutionary – even mutineer – as anti-national. Indira Gandhi may have put almost the entire political Opposition behind bars, and even managed to get hold of the chief organiser of the 1974 Railways strike amidst the Emergency – 10 June 1976 to be precise – but even she never attempted to de-legitimise dissent.

Paradoxes chased Fernandes even after his voice stopped being heard in the Indian political theatre. He showed us how one could be a rebel and yet be accepted within the mainstream.

Even though the Congress government charged him of waging war against the State, and Morarji Desai openly disliked the means Fernandes used during the railway strike and in the its aftermath, he was still made part of the establishment.

Many opine that, with his decision to join the Janata Party government as a minister in 1977, Fernandes began the process of the co-option of an entire generation of the proverbial ‘angry young men’.

Still, to middle-class Indian teenagers in the 1970s, George Fernandes was the rebel to be aspired to. His tousled hair crowning a disheveled getup was a sign that outliers too could become part of the political leadership.


George’s Unbroken Spirit & Political ‘Disappearance’

In many ways, it was a relief for civil society to have a person like George Fernandes rubbing shoulders with the political elite of the country. He could always be turned to for taking up 'lost causes'.

The ferocity with which Fernandes fought for several prisoners on the condemned barracks, Kehar Singh – accused of conspiring to assassinate Indira Gandhi – being among the most notables – demonstrated his commitment. Fernandes appeared a failed man when Kehar Singh was eventually hanged in Tihar Jail in January 1989, but his spirit remained unbroken.

He shouldered along till he felt it was time that the anti-Congressism (which he had picked up after his seminary days in Bangalore and in his early days as a trade unionist in Bombay), could be expressed only in partnership with the BJP.

There were occasions when post 2014, BJP allies bemoaned the fact that Fernandes was no longer “politically around”.

This sentiment stemmed from Fernandes (in many ways) being the moral watchdog of the NDA during the Vajpayee era. It is a different matter altogether, that many like this writer, considered he had shed his past political values after being elevated as the third most important man in the regime after Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani.

Despite the political choices he made, the relevance of George Fernandes in contemporary India is for what he was, and not for what he became.

But, future generations of politicians have to be extremely selective in picking attributes if they consider him their role model.

A Political Demise and Then – The Passing

There were several tragedies in Fernandes' life but two stand apart. First, he never lived up to expectations, falling short of potential, and rarely meeting success in warding controversies and rumours. Second, despite the romantic halo around him, he remained a political nomad who was heaped the ultimate humiliation by his one-time protégé Nitish Kumar.

The NDA lost in 2004 when Fernandes was 74 years old, not an age when one can cope with handling factionalism, the nemesis of Indian socialists or Lohiates. He won the election from Muzaffarpur,the arena of his political crowning in 1977 by a narrow margin.

But, by 2009, equations with Nitish Kumar had altered, and the Bihar chief minister had hijacked the party. Fernandes contested nonetheless from the same seat, but managed to lose even his deposit, thus, highlighting his political demise.

Thereafter, it was just a matter of time before India was to see his final passing. Alas, it arrived before one last hurrah.

(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. He has authored the book ‘The Demolition: India at the Crossroads’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He can be reached @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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