George Mathew Fernandes, who died on Tuesday at the age of 88, was a leader who never fit into convenient slots. A socialist all his adult life, he never got along with the policies of successive Congress regimes in the pre-1991 socialist era. Nor—despite being a trade union leader and thus ‘pro-people’ in the Leftist theology—was he ever part of the Left-liberal elite that infests Lutyens Delhi, indeed the entire opinion-making apparatus. A fearless champion of democracy whose heroic resistance against the Emergency Indira Gandhi has earned him a place in history.
Fernandes was a native of Mangalore who was trained to become a priest; he became a radical instead. He was many things—a trade unionist, politician, a freedom fighter, a minister who held such important portfolios as industry, railways, and defence. In every role, he left his mark. When he was a union leader, the rich and the powerful took him seriously. With lakhs of workers and followers behind him, he could bring Bombay to a halt.
When Fernandes joined politics, it was with a bang. From the South Bombay constituency, he defeated the Congress stalwart, S.K. Patil, in the 1967 Lok Sabha elections, thus getting the epithet ‘giant killer.’
When he fought against Indira Gandhi’s tyranny, he became—literally—the face of resistance. His photograph in chains and with a defiant demeanor has become iconic. He was the mastermind of the 1974 Railway strike and Baroda dynamite case, for which he was arrested and prosecuted.
When Fernandes became minister in the Janata Party government in the late 1970s, he rigidly implemented the socialist laws, which led to the exit of Coca Cola and IBM from India. Unfortunate rigidity, but that was what socialism was.
As defence minister in the Atal Bihar Vajpayee government, corruption charges were hurled at Fernandes but never proved. In his later years, he became a shadow of what he was in his prime, losing skirmishes with fellow leaders like Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. Fernandes passed away after a prolonged illness.