It would prove an exercise in futility to try and place George Fernandes in any conventional compartment ~ he was much too dynamic a personality for that. His political career was chequered enough for him to be, at various times, described as a rebel in search of a cause, the archetypical anti-establishment scrapper, a crusader against Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, trade union activist who could bring Bombay to a standstill, battler for the downtrodden, thriver on the outrageous… He was all of that more, and yet surprisingly the man who proceeded to find himself bracketed with YB Chavan and Jagjivan Ram as defence ministers par excellence.
Even his rivals and opponents came around to recognising his commitment to his own set of ideals: hence from all over the political spectrum came messages condoling the passing of “George Saheb” ~ though with his simple lifestyle he ever felt uncomfortable with that aristocratic, uppercrust term. To list his several achievements within the limited space of an editorial comment would do him grave injustice. He is credited with having accelerated the Emergency by leading the railway strike in 1974, causing MNCs like Coca Cola and IBM to quit the country, and conversely “pushing” the Konkan Railway, presiding over the Pokhran nuclear tests…. A multi-hued personality who espoused “extreme” causes, but was bold enough to have the gates removed from his bungalow in Lutyens’ New Delhi when “security’ insisted they be shut when the Prime Minister of the day drove past.
When he was appointed defence minister there were apprehensions that he would be at constant loggerheads with the strait-laced convention-bound military establishment. Sure he did trigger controversy by sacking an over-zealous Navy Chief, erred when responding positively to a media query if he deemed China the “number one threat”, but his being outspoken also resulted in him being misquoted/ misinterpreted, such as the “safe passage” comment about a Pakistani pull-back from Kargil ~ he had merely declared that “the Indian Army never shoots anybody in the back”. The Siachen Base Camp was a pet-sojourn: yet he understood the troops’ concern by organising satellite telephone links for the soldier to be in contact with his kin, and substantially enhancing their compensation. No wonder he was hailed as the “jawan’s minister”. One eternal contribution was his directing that the mortal remains of military martyrs be transported to their homes for the last rites ~ how many still recall that before his action (which incidentally sparked the coffin-gate furore) the cremations were conducted in the battle-zone itself, denying the soldiers’ families their right to say a final farewell.
George’s twilight years were far from pleasant. Prolonged illness and personal/family woes took a terrible toll. Thus his legion of admirers were never able to determine how he would react to prevailing governmental practices. Yet, given his resistance to the authoritarianism of the Emergency, they would be emboldened to hazard a guess.