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George Fernandes: Straight thinker, who fought against actual injustices

What drove Fernandes was fighting actual injustices inflicted on the people of the teeming metropolis.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Feb 03, 2019, 07.46 AM IST
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George Fernandes: Straight thinker, who fought actual injustices
A friend of Fernandes named Bal Thackeray would follow his bandh tactics, but with no interest in avoiding rough tactics.
The sound and fury in George Fernandes’ life was framed by two kinds of silence. The first was perhaps the silence that fell over the big and bustling city, then called Bombay, when he called a series of bandhs, most famously the Railway Strike of 1974.

“Nothing stirred, except the police on duty, and the demonstrators. Everything came to a standstill,” recalled Prakash Tandon, the first Indian chairman of Hindustan Lever, in his memoir. As the head of one of the largest multinationals in the country, he was a natural opponent of Fernandes. But he had come to admire and respect the man, though not without seeing his weaknesses.

“What it achieved was another matter; but it proved his power,” wrote Tandon about the bandh. He also noted the general lack of violence with which Fernandes achieved his means. “He was tough but avoided rough tactics; he fought clean, and managed to keep the Bombay strikes orderly.”

A friend of Fernandes named Bal Thackeray would follow his bandh tactics, but with no interest in avoiding rough tactics. Fernandes had been born in Mangalore, where he initially trained to be a priest. But he left the seminary in disgust when he found “the rectors ate better food and sat at higher tables than the seminarians,” he once told writer Amitav Ghosh.

Coming to Bombay, he experienced the birth of his political life while living on “the footpath outside Prospect Chambers,” he would tell the Bombay Union of Journalists, which happened to be located in the same building in the Fort area. Watching how police picked on street dwellers made him furiously want to change things.

Fernandes was the minister for communications in the Janata Party govt when he gave that speech, but instead of talking about larger issues of media and policy, what really aroused him was the living conditions of girls who answered telephones in government offices (that was the time of manual switchboards).

Did the journalists know, the minister asked, that in the huge Overseas Communication Service building (later VSNL), there were 200 telephone girls but only 56 beds in the dormitory so they had to take turns sleeping in shifts? This focus on actual injustices inflicted on people was what drove Fernandes, and this personal connection was the strength to his appeal.

Years later, in the more important position of minister for defence and while on a trip with him to Siachen, Ghosh recalled how, during one of the meals, Fernandes quite naturally “left the officers table and began to serve the other ranks, taking the dishes out of the hands of the kitchen staff. The men were visibly moved, and so was Fernandes.”

Such a gesture could have been done for a show, a calculated performance meant to impress observers like Ghosh, yet he got the sense that for Fernandes, the personal connection had a meaning in itself:

“It was clear that in this job – arrived at fortuitously, late in his career – Fernandes had discovered some kind of vocation, a return perhaps, to the austerity and brotherhood of his days as a seminarian or trade unionist,” he wrote.

Tandon would record making a personal connection in very different circumstances, when Fernandes was facing someone he expected to fight. He had managed to take over the HLL union and "started firing one broadside after another, to Tandon, clearly hoping to provoke a fight. Tandon invited him for a cup of tea and Fernandes strode into his office expecting a confrontation with a besuited representative of global capitalism. Much to his surprise though, Tandon's office was simple and the chairman was wearing a bush shirt and chappals, much as Fernandes himself was. As Tandon had intended, he was disarmed, and willing to adjust to the situation.

Fernandes relaxed and spoke to the chairman of how he managed to maintain his control over the vast labour union movement in Bombay. The key, he said, was languages and using them to make personal connections: "what gave him power with Bombay labour was that he could speak fluently to them in Konkani, Gujarati, Hindi and English¡K They felt at ease with him."

Tandon continued to follow Fernandes' career with interest, as his successes in Bombay projected him to a national role. He was intensely political, and played the political game in Delhi to the hilt, yet it seemed to Tandon that this left him increasingly unsatisfied. Fernandes once admitted to Tandon how hollow his Parliamentary performance left him.

"If I really do my homework and study a subject to make a well reasoned, thoughtful speech, then all the press will report is "Mr. Fernandes also spoke."

But if I fulminate and accuse, refuse to sit down and generally display much agitation - well the next day in the press Mr. Fernandes will hit the headlines."

Tandon concluded that "he needed a clear task in front, not the amorphousness of our politics; he was a very clear cut man, who I imagine found it difficult to align, unalign, realign."

When Ghosh observed him, many years later, he saw how such straight thinking had lead him to a political context unimaginably, almost grotesquely different from his origins. Fernandes was still, arguably, on his dedicated path of opposing the Congress and eschewing the larger battles of ideology to focus on actually improving people's lives - but now he was doing so from within the arms of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party. Others have made such political transitions, but usually for ideological reasons and hence the shifts come more naturally.

Fernandes hadn't done it for these reasons, and it must have jarred him however much he loyally defended the BJP leaders in public - and in return they treated him with care, well aware of what a prize he was, for confounding opponents who had once been Fernandes' close allies.

Even the occasional criticisms of the RSS that came from him were indulgently ignored.

Perhaps this explains the silence that then framed the other end of his life. Alzheimer's is an affliction that cannot be wished on anyone, but perhaps it provided Fernandes with an easing relief from the complexities and cruelties of political life. Perhaps like many who subside into senescense, he also found himself going back to the simpler worlds of Bombay in the 1960s, when he could connect with people and persuade them to follow him in showing their power and stalling the city into silence.

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