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Thursday, March 07, 2013

Struck with Alzheimer's and living a catatonic existence, George Fernandes is a pale shadow of his fiery best. Ranjit Bhushan looks at the controversies that continue to dog the veteran Socialist in the twilight of his political career...

In a quiet house in south Delhi's Panchsheel Enclave, aptly christened Shanti Nivas, a piece of modern India lives on.

The nameplate at Shanti Nivas merely announces 'Leila Fernandes'. In the portico, a stationary mid-size steel gray Volkswagengives no indication of its owner, nor his hallowed background, which three decades or so ago, had rocked a smug Congress establishment like few things till then.

At closer scrutiny, it is the living abode of George Fernandes, former Union minister, rebel, maverick, a drop out, survivor, call it you may. Typically of the man, there is no ostentation or guards on duty outside the residence – not different from his tenure in two NDA governments between 1998 to 2004 when he became the first and only Union Defence Minister ever not to deploy official security at his official residence on central Delhi's Krishna Menon Marg.

By not doing so, he had paid a price. In2001, investigative journalists from Tehelka portal used this lacunae to slip into his official residence and meet Jaya Jaitly, Samata Party head and his close aide.

It was no ordinary meeting. Setting up a bogus London-based company selling thermal binoculars, the portal claimed to have filmed Jaitly and other leading lights, as being part of the deal making. In the outcry, George quit, although he was not accused of taking a bribe. Sadly for the veteran Socialist though, the Jaitly saga continues to dog him.

Back in the 1960s, when he galvanised Mumbai's trade unions and took on the might of Congress strongman SK Patil, no one gave him a chance. Yet he had come out fighting and carved out a niche in Mumbai's politics till then dominated by Congress and its Maratha satraps.

Since then, it has been a roller coaster ride for a man who can legitimately be placed in a select list of politicians who are truly pan-Indian. Born in Mangalore, employed in Mumbai, winning successive elections in Bihar and presiding over policy as Cabinet minister, George Fernandes or Gerry to his close circle, was always far removed from the straitjacketed andparochial Indian politician who rarely ventures out of his state.

In the caste-ridden Bihar politics of the 1970s, when the vote bank arithmetic centered around intensely local equations, the entry of George Fernandes, a south Indian Christian, on the state's scene was like a wisp of fresh air. Cutting across barriers, he registered a record breaking victory margin of 4.25 lakhs from the Muzaffarpur Lok Sabha constituency in the 1977 post-Emergency General Elections.

The road leading up to that victory was no less dramatic. As a principal accused in the Baroda dynamite case, the picture of a bespectacled, curly haired man in chains, captured the imagination of an entireelectorate and became the symbol ofdefiance to Indira Gandhi's authoritarian ways and global news networks flashed it as their lead photo. After then, it became a question of cashing in on an anti-Congress sentiment and no one knew how to do it better than George.

Says Dr Harendra Kumar, his close friend from Muzaffarpur, "Nitish Kumar is a product of the George Fernandes school. It goes to the latter's credit that he goaded Nitish and his Samata Party into an alliance with the BJP ending years of Laloo raj in the state."

No surprise then that the Bihar Chief Minister's backyard Nalanda, became George's next stop after Muzaffarpur. He won the Nalanda seat twice, 1996 and 1998. Later came the fall out with Nitish but before the controversy could snow ball, the wily Bihar Chief Minister quickly nominated him to the Rajya Sabha.

As Union Minister in the Morarji Desai government, George raised a storm when he banned Coca Cola, in an act of defiance to multinational companies. The littlebackground to this ban is interesting. According to Harendra Kumar, when George after his historic first win came to the Muzaffarpur circuit house, he was offered a Coke by the then district magistrate. What followed took everyone by surprise. He launched a diatribe against multinationals and vowed to remove Cola from not just the state but the country itself! The rest is history.

George's political actions during his four-decade political journey have never been easy to predict – and that perhaps is his USP. When political brinkmanship and vaulting ambitions threatened to bring down the Morarji Desai government, George offered one of the most stoic defences of the Janta Party government – but later in the day, quite inexplicably, put in his papers.

Which is a bit like the checkered history of Socialists in India itself. Pretty much in the mold of a Ram Manohar Lohia, his two principal political opponents have been the Congress for its family rule – and it goes to George's credit that he one of the few politicians not accused of nepotism – and the Left which believes that Socialists like George actually scuppered India'sCommunist dream and worse, acted as Trojan Horses for a revivalist Hindu rightwing.

Even though George's stint as the Defence Minister was marked by the sacking of the country's Navy chief and the Kargil War, the then Chief of Army Staff General VP Malik, says, "He was a very open person and was always willing to go through the documents, even if lengthy. He was concerned about the welfare of men. It was proved by the number of visits he made to difficult forward areas. Siachen was one such destination."'

At Panchsheel Park, it is difficult to believe that its main resident has had such a hoary past. Out of the public eye and political networks, the once fiery orator has wife Leila Kabir and three attendants for company. Life is a tad staid: break fast at 9.00 am, lunch at 1.30 pm and dinner between 7.30 to 8.00 pm.

Controversies, it appears, are not willing to let go of him even in this catatonic stage. In August this year, Jaya Jaitly was allowed to meet George once every fortnight for 15 minutes by the Supreme Court following her plea. For George, it is probably ironic that a controversy of this nature has emerged at the end of his political career. Sadly, this is one dispute where his legendary oratory skills to persuade cannot be put to use.

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