George Fernandes and his ambiguities | Business Standard News

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The book is not a standard biography of a politician. It is about his life and also the context in which he lived

book review

His opposition to the Congress brought him in close vicinity to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and he defended his partner— while disagreeing with the party on several issues.

The Life and Times of George Fernandes

Author: Rahul Ramagundam

Publisher: Penguin Random House

Pages: 533

Price: Rs 799Socialist, trade unionist, and bitter Congress critic, George Fernandes was to those who didn’t know him a complex bundle of contradictions. He fought traditional trajectories. This book explores some of those trajectories.

The book is not a standard biography of a politician. It is about his life and also the context in which he lived. One important influence on Fernandes’s life was the women around him. His single aunt, living with his father, was a relationship that led to deeply embittered relations between his parents, as his mother was no pushover either. The tussle between his aunt and mother led to her moving out for eight years when Fernandes was eight. Later, when Fernandes was imprisoned during the Emergency and contested the Muzaffarpur election from behind bars, his mother campaigned for him in a constituency that spoke no English. Her speeches were translated into Hindi by a very young Sushma Swaraj.

His childhood may have shaped his bent for strong women. The book explores the tensions between his estranged wife Leila (the couple divorced later) and companion Jaya Jaitly, herself divorced from her husband, an IAS officer who worked with Fernandes (we did promise complexity!). He acquired many comrades (who were, frequently, more than that) in between. Among them was Girija Huilgol, the much younger daughter of an Air India pilot whom Fernandes fought for as a trade unionist. Huilgol supported him through his underground days but she was one of those whose testimony (upon torture) led to Fernandes’s arrest. He never spoke to her again. Fernandes supporters will bridle at this but Indira Gandhi had a profound influence on his life and politics, so she must count on this list too. The book has an electrifying chapter about the Baroda dynamite case, how it was organised, and the actors.

It is well known that his father, John Joseph Fernandes, wanted Fernandes to join the Catholic Church. Fernandes acquiesced but the book explores the back story: The rise of Christianity in that part of India; the historical role of Tipu Sultan; and the politics of the Church, which sickened him. The restless spirit that he was, he got himself involved in trade union work, the beedi makers’ union and organising workers in small eateries. His father threw him out of the house. That incident was to shape Fernandes’s future in politics. He was associated with the Socialist movement which itself was going through a trauma. Stalin’s excesses and the resistance in Poland and Czechoslovakia to the Soviet Union had fired the Socialist imagination — Fernandes’s too. At home, India’s defeat in the war against China had led to a split in the Communist movement and the branding of China as India’s enemy number one.

His opposition to the Congress brought him in close vicinity to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and he defended his partner— while disagreeing with the party on several issues. This was another side to Fernandes’s famed duality. The attack on Christian missionary Graham Staines, his murder and killing of his two little sons in Odisha by a mob led by Bajrang Dal member Dara Singh saw Fernandes giving an extraordinary exculpation to the BJP (and the incident itself). He attributed the event to an international conspiracy by those who wanted the BJP government at the Centre to go. He placed no blame on the BJP, its Rath Yatra or the build-up of communal fervour in the events leading up to the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Instead, he accused the Congress of being the biggest communalist, abetting riots as a way of reminding minorities that they needed to be in the thrall of the Congress or suffer the consequences. The same arguments were made for the Godhra incident. It was a point of view.

Much has been said about his industrial policy, aimed at curtailing big business houses and the exit of IBM and Coca -Cola. The back story is well known but worth recounting: His bureaucrats sent the minister a note to the effect that Coca-Cola has said it would rather fold than divulge the formula of its concentrate. Factories would close and workers would lose their jobs. On August 8, 1977, Fernandes announced that Coca -Cola was a “multinational corporation operating in a low-priority high-profit area in a developing country that attained runaway growth in the absence of alertness on the part of the government concerned”. On IBM, the book records bureaucrats admitting that IBM’s exit contributed in no small measure to India’s current standing in the digital sphere as it had to do everything itself.

Overall, the book is outstanding. The research is meticulous, and many people have opened up to the author. But it has two drawbacks. First: It is inadequate in its exploration of Fernandes as defence minister in successive Vajpayee governments, including the “dismissal” of naval chief Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat. Second: It is excessively judgemental on his relationship with Jaya Jaitly. But it records the pain Fernandes felt for his son Sushanto (Sonny Boy) now known as Sean. He wanted to be a good father but gave away the chance for politics. That’s the essential Fernandes.

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