He stirs controversy — only to be caught on wrong foot
(an editorial by Harihar Swarup in "The Tribune" 26/9/1999)

Open any magazine or browse through any daily, you will find George Fenandes in news in varied forms — making headlines, in photographs and in caricature; he is a cartoonist’s delight. Whether in the Opposition or occupying a ministerial office or in the electoral fray, he is always locked in controversy.

If one has to compile quotable quotes from his utterances, and I swear by George, it will make most interesting reading. List the number of controversies he has kicked up and yet another fine anthology will be ready, worth reading and preserving. A firebrand, George Fernandes(69), is the sort of leader who has thrived on controversies all through his long and varied political career.

His latest is stand-off with the Election Commission, aptly portrayed by the noted cartoonist Laxman, yelling before the CEC: “I cried, wolf, wolf! Because I saw one chasing me...” He roped in the Director of the Intelligence Bureau in a controversy to substantiate his charge that excess ballot papers had been printed for the two Lok Sabha constituencies of Nalanda and Barh from where he and his party colleague, Nitish Kumar, are contesting the elections respectively. First the Home Secretary and then Home Minister L.K. Advani himself denied that the IB had furnished any such information to the Defence Minister and George’s loose cannon backfired again. He drew flak from the Election Commission for dragging the IB into the controversy.

Recall Fernandes’s recent outburst against Sonia Gandhi: “What is her contribution to the nation? The two children she gave birth to. She has contributed two people to the 100 crore population of our country.” The quote will be remembered for a long time.

Within six months of taking over as Defence Minister, he brought the slow but steady progress of normalcy in India-China relations to a virtual halt. One wonders if it was necessary to use expression like — “China is the potential threat No 1” and “I think there is reluctance to face the reality that China’s intentions need to be questioned”. His uncalled for remarks not only embarrassed the Vajpayee Government but drew a rebuff from the Chinese — that the Defence Minister’s remarks have seriously sabotaged the favourable atmosphere for improving bilateral relations”. Strenuous efforts had to be made by the Prime Minister and his External Affairs Ministry to save India-China relations from souring.

His “certificate” during the Kargil conflict to Nawaz Sharif raised many eyebrows. His tiff with Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat and sacking of the Naval Chief caused widespread resentment in the defence forces. Never before chief of an armed force was sacked in such an abashed manner and the act will go down in the annals of the Defence Ministry as a bad patch.

Living amidst controversy is a trait of Lohiates(followers of Socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia) and Fernandes is an ardent follower of the socialist leader who, whenever he opened his mouth, created a rumpus. The difference is that Dr Lohia was invariably right whenever he raised an issue — even when he challenged Jawaharlal Nehru — but Fernandes is almost every time caught on the wrong foot. George’s lifestyle — crumpled kurta, broken chappals, disorderly hair — however, resembles his mentor.

Fernandes became Union Minister for the first time in Morarji Desai’s Government in 1977 and allocated the Industry portfolio. His first act was to unceremoniously kick out Coca-Cola and IBM while he initiated imaginative schemes for the growth of small scale, khadi and village industries. Despite his idiosyncrasy, Morarjibhai had an immense liking for George’s guts, courage and dynamism and often used to say the Lohiate socialist was No 2 in his Cabinet.

He challenged the might of the Indira Gandhi’s Government during the Emergency having organised the abortive Baroda dynamite episode and had to be put in chain. “George in chains” was a photo-scoop then. As Railway Minister in the V.P. Singh Government he did a lot for the employees. The nationwide strike he led in 1974, failed.

George is son of a priest, and his father wanted that he should also become a preacher. He grew up in the religious environment of a church in Mangalore but he was destined to become an atheist. Turning rebel, he came to Bombay when he was barely 19 years old and plunged into the trade union movement, associating himself with port and dock workers’ union.

From the cloistered environs of a church to the position of the Defence Minister has been a long march for George. He is locked up in a bitter battle at the hustings. One year short of seventy, George still retains “the fire of life” as he campaigns in Nalanda: it is no longer Chanakaya’s alma mater. The Defence Minister kick starts a motor cycle, zooms his way into otherwise inaccessible areas. He does not carry a cell phone nor does he possess a satellite phone.