There are two images of George Fernandes that remain etched in memory. The first dates back to the dark days of the Emergency, which he challenged and went underground, but was arrested in connection with the Baroda Dynamite case. This picture, of when he was taken to court for a hearing, has the firebrand leader defiantly raising a fist, the long chain of the manacles that shackled him hanging down from the wrist. This was the picture that made him an iconic figure in Indian politics as he went from his birthplace in Mangalore to trade union leader, and then to national politics, ministerial positions and political party founder.
The second image is of Fernandes, as Defence Minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, of him waving from an Indian Air Force fighter plane and becoming the oldest civilian to fly in a fighter aircraft. Fernandes was at the helm of the Defence ministry when the Pokhran nuclear test was undertaken and also when the Kargil incursion took place, leading to a brief war, before the Indian defence forces were able to push back the Pakistani forces and regain the land. It was Fernandes, who teamed up with the BJP and brought Vajpayee to power, a move that ended the isolation of the party in national politics and brought other parties to join hands with the BJP.
A trade union leader primarily, Fernandes fought his entire life, bringing Bombay to a standstill and in his first election to the Lok Sabha defeating Congress veteran S K Patil in 1967. His fame preceded him, and in 1977, in the election following the lifting of Emergency, the South Karnataka born Fernandes won from Muzaffarpur in Bihar, while still in jail and having not once stepped in the constituency. He went on to win from this constituency twice more, and once more from Nalanda also in Bihar, and was also a member of the Rajya Sabha from the same State.
A socialist to the core, his first ministerial stint in 1997 will be remembered for the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act violation he, as Union Industries Minister, had slapped on Coca Cola and IBM, which led to the companies closing down and quitting India. The companies would return to the country only years later.
A Konkani speaker, Fernandes’ biggest contribution to Goa is the Konkan Railway, which he initiated connecting Mangalore his birthplace with Mumbai the place from where he rose to fame as a trade union leader leading the taxi unions and the railway unions. It was during his brief stint as Railway Minister during the government of VP Singh, that he got the Konkan Railway set up, despite the opposition to its alignment in Goa. Opting for some innovation, the Konkan Railway was not constructed as it would normally have been done by the Railway Ministry, but a corporation was set up to build and operate it. Hoping to speed up the construction, Fernandes got work on the line started at both ends and also in the middle, and the first train on the full route rolled out in May 1998.
Though he was out of politics for the past decade, after the 2009 Lok Sabha election loss, and confined to bed for the last few years, Fernandes had not entirely slipped from people’s memory. The hero of the Emergency is remembered by those who knew his as simple but strong, a man who stayed committed to his political ideology throughout his life, never once deviating from it. He fought many battles, political and otherwise, the last being the Alzheimer’s disease that kept him away from the public eye. As the nation bids farewell to the social fighter, there is but one word in Konkani to be said to him – Adeus.