As Defence Min, George Fernandes Was Committed to Jawans’ Welfare

To call George’s 2 terms as defence minister would be an understatement, but he won the love of jawans.

5 min read
Archival photo of George Fernandes during his stint as Defence Minister.

The crumpled kurta and unruly hair marked the man whose lifestyle was truly Spartan.  George Fernandes not only cut a larger-than-life figure in the Indian political firmament, but a colourful one.

Hyping support for the jawans is a symbol of ultra-nationalism today, yet there is no politician who can hold a candle to Fernandes, who served as defence minister between 1998-2004, for his grit and determination to do the right thing by the armed forces.

George, A Life-Long Socialist

George Fernandes began his political life as a trade unionist in the mid-1950s. This propelled him to a shock victory over Congress strongman SK Patil in the 1967 general elections. His next major role was organising the nation-wide strike by Railways unions, whose eddies led to the declaration of the Emergency on 25 June 1975.

Fernandes went underground, and was arrested a year later in June 1976 and charged with sensational crimes, ranging from a plot to carry out explosions across the country to armed robbery to fund the anti-Emergency movement. In our less innocent times, that would have been classed as “terrorism”, but his trial for “sedition” only burnished his credentials as a fighter for democracy.

Fernandes never hid his political inclinations. He was a life-long socialist, and following his guru Ram Manohar Lohia, a fervent critic of Pt Nehru and Indira Gandhi, and later Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi. George Fernandes was anti-Communist, supported the Burmese rebels, Tibetans, and even the LTTE, and had no hesitation in working with the Jana Sangh, and later the BJP, in an era where they were considered pariah.


George’s Tumultous Terms as Defence Minister

George Fernandes’s advocacy was not affected by the fact that he was defence minister. Burmese activists lived in a garage of his house in 3 Krishna Menon Marg, whose other unique feature was that its gate had been removed on Fernandes’s orders, to enable anyone and everyone easy access. Though he was known as the minister who expelled IBM and Coca-Cola from the country, his most momentous innings was as the defence minister in the two Atal Bihari Vajpayee governments between March 1998-April 1999, and October 1999-April 2004. To say that his terms were tumultuous, would be an understatement.

In May 1998, the country formally crossed the nuclear threshold and, though, a votary of disarmament, George went along with the government’s decision. In December that year, at the recommendation of Fernandes, the Cabinet Committee on Security sacked the Indian Navy Chief Vishnu Bhagwat for insubordination. This was the first time in independent India’s history, that the government had taken such drastic action against the heads of one of its military services.

Even more dramatic was the Kargil war, something for which Fernandes and the government should have shouldered the blame. He was the defence minister, and the Pakistanis were able to intrude across the Line of Control in the Kargil area, compelling the Army and Air Force to launch a counter-attack that cost India hundreds of lives of jawans and officers. But the government of the day cleverly used the patriotism, amplified through the relatively new medium of private TV channels, to its benefit. Indeed, just after the war, it won the general election to the Lok Sabha in September-October 1999.


George’s Tryst With Scandals & Controversy

In his second term as defence minister, Fernandes himself became subject to repeated controversy. He was hit by two “scandals” .  The first was Tehelka’s sting on the defence ministry, exposing corruption. Fernandes’s companion Jaya Jaitly, who was also the president of the Samata Party founded by him, also figured as a recipient of the relatively small amount of Rs 2 lakhs (that she had reportedly received was by way of a donation for a party function). But the event led to a near crisis for the Vajpayee government and Fernandes’s resignation as the defence minister in March 2001.

Immediately thereafter, came the so-called “coffin scam” where the Comptroller and Auditor General charged that the Army had purchased aluminum coffins from abroad at inflated rates. This was part of a wider attack on the Ministry of Defence for the emergency purchases it had made in the wake of the Kargil war.

The coffin charge was somewhat overblown since the minister would not be involved in a purchase that minor. After an inquiry, Prime Minister Vajpayee took George back into the Union Cabinet as defence minister in October 2001.

Subsequently, the Congress government sought to unfairly embroil him and the then Navy Chief Sushil Kumar in the so-called Barak Missile scandal in 2006. But the case, like many others helmed by the CBI, did not go anywhere. The missile was acquired because the DRDO failed to deliver the Trishul, and the Navy was desperate for an anti-aircraft missile.


A Notable Term as Defence Minister, Despite Controversies

Despite the ups and downs, Fernandes’s term as defence minister was notable. His keen interest in military matters enabled him to establish good working relations with the armed forces, notwithstanding the Bhagwat affair. He revived the Defence Minister’s Committee that had been dormant for decades, to get the chiefs, the three secretaries and the financial adviser of the ministry on every third Thursday of the month.

But what won their hearts was the way in which he chastised civilian officers of the MOD who had casually denied the need for snow mobiles in Siachen. He promptly ordered them to personally visit Siachen.

Not only did he clear the snow-mobile acquisition, George also made provision for heating systems for the military hospital in Srinagar. He also provided it with medical equipment needed for the wounded and mountain-sick soldiers.


George’s Commitment to Welfare of Jawans

His commitment to the welfare of the jawans is evident from the more than 16 trips he made to the glaciers as a minister. Instead of descending to Siachen in the comfort of an aircraft, he would often travel sitting alongside the driver in a car, and put in 18 hours work a day. He was indefatigable, averaging a thousand kilometres a month, visiting military installations across the country.

None of George’s Calibre in Defence Ministry Today

Lesser known is Fernandes’s role as one of the four members of the Cabinet Committee on Security who were part of the Group of Ministers who processed the most intense effort to reform the Defence Ministry in the 1999-2001 period. Several major issues were resolved, but many remain – civil-military friction in the top echelons of government, lack of joint work, the non-involvement of military personnel in larger strategic policy formulation and so on.

Today, as the country’s defence system remains stuck in the doldrums, the lack of a defence minister of Fernandes’s caliber is keenly felt.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. 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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