'Lalu Stood at Airport With Tea': When Knowing George Fernandes Meant Entry Into 'Page 3' of Politics
There was a time when association with George Fernandes meant that you would be the sought-after person in the society and the young circles.
File photo of George Fernandes (Image: PTI)
The first time I met George Fernandes was in Patna during the massive railway strike of 1974. He was the then president of the All India Railwaymen’s Federation and I used to live in Patna at the time. I was a worker involved in the Bihar movement.
I remember many things about the time I first met him. George was a big leader already and there was a lot of respect and even attraction for him in the circle of socialists. We used to have student committees at the time, involved in the Bihar movement under Jai Prakash Narayan. My socialist friends in the Bihar Chhatra Sangharshan Samiti introduced me to George Fernandes when he was there.
George Fernandes’ father wanted him to become a priest, but he went to Bombay and was involved in the trade union movement there.
In 1967, when anti-Congress wave was sweeping the nation, he defeated SK Patil in general elections. Patil was the betaaj badshah of Bombay and a big Congress leader. After beating Patil, Fernandes became a household name in the country.
So I came in contact with him for the first time during the JP movement. In May 1974, he was then spearheading the biggest railway strike we had seen, and several unions were on strike under his leadership.
He was even arrested along with several railway trade union leaders later. In a way, it was a movement in itself, parallel to the JP movement. And it had a big impact. The movement became a big stage to raise voice against the rising dictatorship of India Gandhi. He became popular for a second time with the railway strike. There was another big railway strike in 1948-49 under the leadership of Jai Prakash Narayan when he was the president of All India Railwaymen’s Federation.
When Indira Gandhi was convicted by the Allahabad high court in 1975, she had two options: Declare emergency to save her Prime Minister’s chair, or install a different Prime Minister. She chose the former route. When emergency was imposed, Fernandes went underground. For seven-eight months he led that underground movement; it was just like in 1942 during independence struggle, when people had gone underground and were sending messages and dispatches on the radio and providing arms training to people.
Baroda became the centre of Fernandes’ underground movement. He used to often stay at the residence of K Vikram Rao, who was then a Times of India correspondent in Baroda. There, Fernandes held discussions and planning for the underground movement. But he couldn’t stay at one place for long and kept moving around.
So when he went to Calcutta to effect the movement, the police got his wind and he was arrested and charged in the Baroda dynamite case. The government had alleged that Fernandes was planning to blow up government buildings with the help of dynamite. He was kept handcuffed and in chains in the jail.
I used to meet him now and then during the days of the movement, but our close friendship began when I was a journalist during the time of Jan Morcha in 1987, ’88, under the leadership of Vishwanath Pratap Singh. George was involved in it.
It was then that our friendship deepened, a friendship that remained till the end of his life. I remember when people celebrated his 75th birth anniversary in 2004 — he never used to celebrate his birthday — but on 3 June, 2004 was his first and last birthday celebration, his 75th. I was there among the 40 people who were invited.
A deep trust formed between us around 1995 after his injury. One day when he was washing his clothes — he used to wash his kurta and pyjama himself till that time — Fernandes fell in the bathroom and injured his head. He used to be in supreme health till then, but he started getting unwell after that injury.
His brain was operated upon later. And I used to go to meet him during those days. One day he told me that he had sent Nitish Kumar and Jaya Jaitly as observers to BJP’s session in Bombay during its formation.
Indian politics was about to take a new turn. Fernandes was not a supporter of the Jan Sangh or the BJP, in fact you could say he was an opponent at the time. But he later saw that he must support the BJP.
One of the main aspects of George Fernades’ personality was his strong opposition to the Nehru-Gandhi family. He believed that the Nehru-Gandhi family had harmed the nation a lot and that is why he could shake hands with anyone against that family. He chose his way between two extremes. He couldn’t be a communist, he couldn’t be in Congress. BJP was the alternative he chose around 1996.
He was then the president of the Samta Party and Nitish was a parliamentarian from Bihar. I remember George used to tell me during that time that Nitish Kumar was Chief Ministerial material. He wanted to project Nitish as Bihar CM as well. After he sent Nitish and Jaya to that session as observers, he played a crucial role in the formation of the National Democratic Alliance in 1998 and he went on to become the convener of the NDA too when Vajpayee was NDA president.
I know Nitish Kumar too, since we were together in the movement in 1974. He is a spectacular gentleman, even in his private life. Neither Nitish nor George was the reason for the later conflict that happened between the two, but a third person was responsible. It was because that third party, the two had a disagreement. But I feel Nitish, even today, considers Fernandes his neta and respects him.
From 1987 to 2004 my meetings and association with George continued, as a journalist and as a personal friend too. I remember this one thing: Whenever George Fernandes landed in Patna at the time, Lalu Prasad Yadav used to receive him at the airport with a kettle and a cup in his hand. Lalu used to stand at the airport with tea made at his home in the kettle. At that time, if you were associated with George, you were sought after in society and young circles; you can understand how it was.
He was a kind of a political leader to whom you could either be a friend or an enemy. You could either be his admirer or his critic. People see contradictions in his life too, but I found that those people were the ones who tried to gain advantage through George and when they did not succeed, they turned into his critics.
His life was all about simplicity; he rarely spent money over himself. At his home, at 3 Krishna Menon Marg, right across the road from Arun Jaitley’s residence, activists from the Myanmar movement, Tibet movement used to stay often.
The new cult that had started in China, activists from over there used to visit his residence now and then as well. And George introduced me to them. I even wrote about the plight of those Chinese activities in Jansatta. They were being ostracised, beaten, thrown in prison and assassinated by China’s communist party. This was sometime between 1998 and 2001.
He had just one small room in his residence. All other sections of his home housed books. I remember, of all the residences of parliamentarians and leaders I visited, I was impressed by two people the most. One was Jyotirmoy Basu, the Lok Sabha MP for CPM, who used to live at 2, Bishambar Das Marg. I used to go to his place when we were involved in the student movement. And I used to see seven to eight stenographers working at his house; Basu kept dictating questions, notices. His reference library was very good, but even better was George’s library of books and files.
The last time I met George was around 2006 or sometime around that, when there was controversy going on and Leila Kabir, his estranged wife, had taken him back to her home. I met him before he left that day.
It was around the time when his memory had begun faltering. So it has been about 10 years or so since I last meet him. I often thought about meeting him since, but people used to tell me that he did not recognise others any longer. So I did not visit, but I kept in touch with people who used to meet him and I asked after him.
George was a revolutionary leader and his passion remained intact till the end of his life.
(Ram Bahadur Rai is a senior Hindi journalist and writer. He joined Jansatta as a reporter in 1983 when the newspaper began operations and left as an editor in 2004. Rai was involved in the Bihar movement under Jai Prakash Narayan and was a close associate of the leader. He later formed a close friendship with George Fernandes.)
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