New Delhi: Former defence minister and anti-Emergency crusader George Fernandes passed away aged 88 on Tuesday.
Fernandes, who served as the defence minister in the NDA government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpyee between 1998 and 2004, had been crippled by Alzheimer's and had withdrawn from public life over the past decade. His last stint as a parliamentarian was as a Rajya Sabha MP between August 2009 and July 2010.
Sources close to his family told news agency PTI that he was suffering from swine flu for the last few days.
One of the most prominent leaders of the socialist movement in the 1970s, his first stint in politics was with the Janata Party after the Emergency. He later founded the Samata Party in 1994, which allied with the BJP.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi remembered him as “the best of India’s political leadership.” He tweeted, “Frank and fearless, forthright and farsighted, he made a valuable contribution to our country. He was among the most effective voices for the rights of the poor and marginalised.” PM Modi added that he is saddened by his death.
He was born in Mangaluru in 1930 and was training to be a Roman Catholic priest when he was drawn to trade union politics. He rose to prominence in 1967 with a surprise victory over senior Congress leader SK Patil from Mumbai.
During the 1975 Emergency imposed by the Indira Gandhi, Fernandes was arrested on the charges of planning to blow up government establishments and railway tracks.
He contested the 1977 election from jail and won the Muzaffarpur constituency in Bihar by a huge margin. He was made the industries minister when the Janata Party came to power in 1977 with Morarji Desai as Prime Minister.
He also served as the Railways minister in the VP Singh government from 1989 to 1990. He was instrumental in setting up the Konkan Railway project, connecting Mangalore and Bombay.
As Atal Bihari Vajpayee's Defence Minister, Fernandes oversaw the Pokhran nuclear tests of 1998 and the Kargil war. He stepped down in 2004 after ‘coffin gate’ broke out. He was later absolved by two commissions of inquiry.
Apart from the defence ministry during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led government, Fernandes held several ministerial portfolios including communications, industry and railways.
Other political leaders, from across the political spectrum, also paid tributes to Fernandes. Congress chief Rahul Gandhi offered condolences to his family and friends. "I’m sorry to hear about the passing away of former Parliamentarian & Union Minister, George Fernandes Ji," he wrote in a Facebook post.
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee said she was very saddened at the passing away of former defence minister and "much admired trade unionist, George Fernandes Ji". "I have known him for decades. My condolences to his family and admirers," she tweeted.