Former defence minister George Fernandes passed away early on Tuesday following a prolonged illness, his family sources said. He was 88.

Fernandes was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Recently, he contracted swine flu, they said.

Fernandes was India’s defence minister in the NDA government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed his grief and paid tributes to the departed soul.

The Prime Minister said Fernandes represented the best of India’s political leadership.

“Frank and fearless, forthright and farsighted, he made a valuable contribution to our country. He was among the most effective voices for the rights of the poor and marginalised. Saddened by his passing away,” tweeted PM Modi.

Remembering the former minister, PM Modi said Fernandes was the fiercest trade union leader who fought for justice, the leader who could humble the mightiest of politicians at the hustings, a visionary railway minister and a great defence minister who made India safe and strong.

“During his long years in public life, George Sahab never deviated from his political ideology. He resisted the Emergency tooth and nail. His simplicity and humility were noteworthy,” Modi further said.

The Prime Minister also extended his condolences to the family and friends of the late minister.

Condoling his death, President Ram Nath Kovind tweeted, “Distressed to learn of the passing of Shri George Fernandes, who served India in many capacities, including as Defence Minister. He epitomised simple living and high thinking. And was a champion of democracy, during the Emergency and beyond. We will all miss him”.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee too expressed sadness tweeting, “Very saddened at the passing away of former Defence Minister and much-admired trade unionist, George Fernandes Ji. I have known him for decades. My condolences to his family and admirers”.

“Deeply saddened at passing away of former Union minister & stalwart leader George Fernandes. It is a great loss for the nation both politically as well as intellectually. Pray for his soul to rest in peace and my condolences for his family & followers,” tweeted Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik.

Union Minister Smriti Irani remembered the former defence minister as “an able administrator, and a distinguished politician”. “His contribution towards strengthening democracy will be etched in the hearts & minds of Indians forever. My heartfelt condolences to his loved ones. Om Shanti,” she tweeted.

Suresh Prabhu remembered Fernandes as the “creator of the Konkan Railways when he was the Railway minister when all others in the Finance and other ministries opposed it”.

“He (Fernandes) single-handedly did it, picked up Mr Sridharan, created a separate corporation to execute it, raised bonds by public meetings,” Prabhu added.

Former J-K chief minister Omar Abdullah also condoled Fernandes’ demise.

“Rest in peace George Fernandes Sahib. You were a tireless crusader fighting for the voiceless, the marginalised & for those that needed someone in their corner. You called a spade a spade & did so unabashedly. You were always a friend & well wisher of the people of J&K. God speed,” he tweeted.