George Fernandes had seen ups and downs in his political career but always remained the kind-hearted human being that I knew.
George Fernandes was a fighter and he fought his battles with unparalleled tenacity. I had heard the story of how he held on to the railway tracks with his fingers during the famous railway strike he had organised in 1974 and how the police had to literally crush his fingers with their lathis before George would let go.
I got to know him a little when he was a minister in the Morarji Desai government that was formed after the defeat of the Congress party in the 1977 general elections. At the time, I was Principal Secretary to then Bihar Chief Minister Karpoori Thakur. Both Karpoori and George belonged to the socialist mainstream and Karpoori would call upon George whenever he visited Delhi. His victory from the Muzaffarpur Lok Sabha seat while he was still in jail is a glorious chapter in the annals of history. He was already an icon when I first met him and I soon became his ardent admirer.
Campaigning for George
When I left the IAS and joined the Janata Party, George Fernandes and I became colleagues. I was elated when I addressed my first public meeting with him-for me it was a dream come true.
George lost the 1984 Lok Sabha election like many other stalwarts of the opposition but within a couple of years, opportunity came knocking at his door as the by-election to the Banka Lok Sabha constituency in Bihar. Banka had been a traditional stronghold of the socialist movement and Madhu Limaye had won the seat earlier. George decided to contest the by-election from Banka as the Janata Party’s candidate. His opponent was Congress leader Manorama Singh, the wife of then chief minister of Bihar Chandrashekhar Singh.
To begin with, it was an unequal contest. A few days after George had started his election campaign, Chandra Shekhar decided to visit Banka and address a few public meetings for him. I accompanied Chandra Shekhar on this trip as I was already the general secretary of the party and thus an important functionary.
At the end of our two-day visit, George had a strange request. He told Chandra Shekhar that he would like me to be his election agent and chief campaign manager. For me it was a moment of supreme satisfaction and I readily agreed as did Chandra Shekhar. And so, I came back to Delhi, packed a bigger bag and returned to Banka to assist George in his campaign.
What followed is an experience I shall cherish all my life. I stayed in the same premises as George. He had organised langar (community dining) for the many party workers who would assemble at his house to exchange notes on the campaign and stay there during lunch time. For the two of us he had made separate arrangements for dining inside the house. Every day, after breakfast, we would leave for campaign work and return only late evening.
After discussing the situation with the workers, we would freshen up and during dinner (the food was always good!), discuss other important aspects of the campaign.
He had a team from Bombay which took care of every last detail of the election campaign. I noticed for instance that they had even brought with them wads of one rupee notes to be paid to polling agents as the fee for challenging the identity of voters.
I was very impressed with the meticulous planning that went into organising the campaign. In fact, I followed many of the best practices in my future elections.
George could not win the election but gave his opponent a good fight. As for me, I learnt a lot about organising an election campaign and became friends with George for life.
Firebrand union leader: George Fernandes
It is well known that George was also a great labour leader and had his own trade unions in many industries. He once decided to visit my constituency Hazaribagh, especially its coal-field area for a meeting with the workers. I drove him to Rajrappa, which apart from a famous temple also housed a huge Coal India establishment. Unfortunately, upon reaching the place we discovered that our friends there had failed to organise the public meeting. As we met them in the drawing room of the guest house, they told us their sob story of why it hadn’t been possible for them to organise it. I noticed that George took this development in his stride-he was not disappointed in the least and gave the union leaders a lecture for 45 minutes in the drawing room itself.
Kind-hearted man, fierce politician
Then V.P. Singh emerged on the national political scene after his resignation from the Rajiv Gandhi cabinet and the matter came up for discussion at the national executive meeting of the Janata Party. It was here that George made his famous remark: If there was no V.P. Singh, we would have had to discover one.
He was disappointed when I did not join the VP Singh government in which he became the Railway minister. We came together years later when his Samata Party became an alliance partner of the BJP in 1998 and he joined the Vajpayee cabinet as defence minister. We were both members of the cabinet committee on security and worked closely together on various issues concerning national security.
It is worth remembering that he was an energetic defence minister who visited Siachen a record number of times.
George had seen ups and downs in his political career but he always remained the kind-hearted human being that I knew. Such was the might of George’s character that even as defence minister, he travelled economy class and sat in the last seat at the back of the aircraft.
Rest in by Peace George. We will miss you.
-The author, a former union minister and long-time BJP member, quit the party in 2018 and now leads a political action group called the Rashtra Manch.-