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George’s Journey From Firebrand Activist To Defence Minister

GANAPATHI BHAT, AKOLA

Crumpled attire, uncombed hair, enigmatic emotions summed only one side of the man. A man who spoke ten languages and won seven Lok Sabha elections away from his home town Mangaluru in distant Bihar could not have been just a leader.  He was a trade union activist who was adored by workers. In the late 60s, the mill workers of the then Bombay literally worshipped him. Excellent oratory and the innate sympathy towards every worker brought him into the good books of the working class. Therefore, by 1974, George Mathew Fernandes, then in his 30s, could organise a massive Railway strike which crippled the nation. By then, George Fernandes had compelled the political class to sit up and take notice after his surprise triumph over the formidable S K Patil, considered the virtual number two in the Congress party. Emergency imposed by the then prime minister Indira Gandhi actually allowed the ‘rebel’ Fernandes to go underground for months only to see his elder brother Lawrence and friend Snehalata Reddy brutally tormented to reveal his whereabouts, as the government feared Fernandes had planned to blow up Railway tracks and government offices. Growing in stature to form his party, allying with politicians of repute and then, of course, jumping into the volcano called politics followed the frugal and simple George Fernandes. As defence minister under prime minister A B Vajpayee from 1998 to 2004, Fernandes made headlines: good and bad. His empathy for the soldiers fighting for the country and his penchant to visit the Siachen glacier to have first-hand knowledge of conditions there are legendary. No defence minister had ever called China India’s foremost enemy, but he did. Pokhran in 1998 and Kargil in 1999 brought him laurels. Then came the series of ‘scam’ accusations – defence procurement scam, Tehelka tape scam and so on which blurred the image of George Fernandes we knew. Ill health spares none, and unfortunately, Parkinsonism and the crippling Alzheimer’s disease confined him to bed in the evening of his life

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