The ‘Anthony’ of Congress’s ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’ is no more. It is strange that they died in the same order. First ‘Amar’ Arun Singh passed away. Last year ‘Akbar’ Ahmed Patel breathed his last. And finally ‘Anthony’ Oscar Fernandes bid farewell on Monday.
Fernandes had been unwell for the past few years and had shifted to his hometown for treatment.
In the mid-1980s, under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, these three rose to prominence and were considered the most powerful behind-the-scenes figures in the PMO and party.
Unlike Arun Singh and Ahmed Patel, Oscar Fernandes was neither a political brain, nor an organiser with excellent contacts. He was basically a party loyalist and remained extremely faithful to the Congress and the Gandhi family. Above all, he knew how to keep secrets.
From a humble Roman Catholic family in temple town coastal Udupi, Oscar became a leader of national importance. He won his first Lok Sabha election by defeating Union minister TA Pai in 1980 from Udupi. That big win made him a favourite of the-then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
According to a veteran politician from Udupi, Manorama Madhwaraj, it was she who had introduced Oscar Fernandes to Indira Gandhi a few months before the parliamentary elections. Indira Gandhi looked at the tall Oscar Fernandes and asked him if he could defeat a giant, TA Pai. Oscar just smiled. Indira Gandhi was somehow convinced and gave him the ticket.
Many years later, speaking to this journalist, Oscar himself had said, “I did not know what to say. I just smiled at madam Gandhi. I did not want to spoil my chances by saying something stupid." Actually this nature of his had saved Oscar Fernandes all through his political career spanning over 40 years.
For the most part, Oscar, affectionately called ‘Oscar Anna’ was a genial man, who could do no harm to anyone.
After Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, Rajiv Gandhi took charge as the Prime Minister and he took an instant liking to the humble, workaholic Oscar and he became a part of the famous troika of Amar, Akbar and Anthony, handling various party and government responsibilities. He was Rajiv Gandhi’s parliamentary secretary and a joint secretary of the AICC. In 1987, Oscar briefly became Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee president before returning to national politics.
After Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991, PV Narasimha Rao became the Prime Minister and AICC president. It was a low point in Oscar’s political life as PVN suspected his loyalty and had dubbed him a ‘Sonia man’.
Oscar, who rarely shared party secrets or spoke something bad about someone, never liked PVN and he was open about it. Speaking to this journalist, Oscar had said that Rao had threatened him with a denial of ticket in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections and he had dared the Prime Minister to do so. A scared Rao had to relent and Oscar won his fifth and the last Lok Sabha election from Udupi.
Between 1980 and 1996, Oscar had won five consecutive elections from the Hindu-majority Udupi Lok Sabha seat, creating a record of sorts.
He tasted his first and last defeat in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections. After that, he became a Rajya Sabha member from Karnataka for four consecutive terms and never contested in any direct elections.
Oscar Fernandes had been a Member of Parliament for 41 years with a break of just a few weeks in 1998. It is another record.
With Sonia Gandhi taking charge as the AICC president in 1998, Oscar once again became powerful in the Congress. He was one of the longest-serving general secretaries of the party, handling organisational matters. Despite wielding so much power, Oscar was an extremely affable man. Power always sat lightly on his shoulders.
He used to come to office in the morning and would sit there till midnight, attending to party workers and others who came to him seeking all kinds of favours.
He never lost his temper and treated all with the same courtesy and affection.
After the Congress returned to power in 2004, Oscar became a union minister for five years. In 2009, he opted out and returned to party work. He was also Government of India’s interlocutor in the Naga peace talks. He had a special affection for the north-eastern states and was the Congress’s incharge for many years in the region.
Besides politics, Oscar had a keen interest in yoga, Kuchipudi, the harmonica, Yakshagana and long walks.
In 2004, he performed in a Yakshagana, playing the role of Bhishma opposite his party colleague and former Karnataka chief minister M Veerappa Moily, who was Karna.
Not many know that Oscar Fernandes had played a crucial role in the creation of the Telangana state in 2014 and had facilitated a few secret meetings to achieve that. Not someone to boast, Oscar never took any credit for that.
Oscar Fernandes had worked as a farmhand and an auto driver during his younger days to support his family. He was proud of his humble roots and coastal Karnataka origin. He had firmly believed in secularism and had practiced that all through his political life.
With his departure, the Congress has lost a man for all seasons.