BENGALURU: In the fifth general elections held in March 1977, George registered an impressive victory. It was when the Emergency was still in force and he in jail; it was an election he had at first refused to participate in and called for his party to boycott as well. While he was exercised over it, it was Madhu Limaye who presented him with a fait accompli. In a five-short sentence letter, endorsed as well by JP, Madhu Limaye urged him to contest from Muzaffarpur ‘in the interest of party unity and for political considerations’. Seconding his proposal were the two others who thought they could have been candidates themselves wouldn’t fight because they wanted him to win.
The Bihar strongman Karpoori Thakur, too, endearingly scribbled, ‘If you don’t [fight] there will not be any relationship left between us.’ Armed with such goodwill, urging him to take the plunge, Madhu Limaye predicted, ‘You will win with a thumping majority’. Leila Fernandes, who was unsure if he should contest at all, was unhappy at the turn of events. ‘I read your long statement urging a boycott of elections’, she wrote from Charlottesville, ‘and learnt later that you are contesting.’ More than surprise, her words were dipped in sarcasm that he chose to ignore. She was uncertain about the outcome as well. ‘Well, I certainly shall be keeping my fingers crossed that your friends’ campaign on your behalf will get you elected.’
He was elected, his nearest Congress rival trounced by a margin of more than three lakh votes. Although the newly formed Janata Party swept the north Indian scene, the manner of his victory in a constituency he had never been to, voted by a people who had never heard him speak, established his invulnerable charisma. He was a hero, an anti-authoritarian fighter who had put at stake his everything in the fight to restore democracy. Contesting from inside jail, refused parole, even his request for transfer to a jail in the constituency denied, it was indeed a victory sweeter and more emphatic than his first-ever win in 1967.
But from inside the prison, it had seemed the odds were stacked against him. However courageous his mien, he feared as well. In an imploring letter to a socialist comrade in Bihar, he wrote of his wife and toddler son who were in exile and declared: ‘For me, this election is the only way to save myself from a hangman’s noose.’
His was truly a people’s campaign, run on an inexhaustible enthusiasm and transparent sincerity. Later, he would acknowledge it as a ‘peaceful and democratic revolution’ brought about by the common man. Even though young men sat at the town square with shoeshine boxes and makeshift tea stalls, funds were not much required. His constituents were ‘overwhelmingly proud for having a leader of your stature to guide us’. Many worked voluntarily for his election campaign. To prove that they had a role in his victory by working as agents of his, they sent him agent passes issued by the presiding officers at polling booths.
From early on it was clear that the Janata Party would never become a cohesive unit. Although its coming into being had set forth great enthusiasm and generated terrific hope, its formation was essentially a reaction to the Emergency. Having come together under exigent circumstances, it was at best a simmering cauldron, of all but one steel-clad Congress breakaways, distinguished not by what had brought about their respective splits but by the timing of it. They were united in their common antipathy to Indira Gandhi’s rising power.
(Excerpted from ‘The life and times of George Fernandes’ by Rahul Ramagundam, with permission from Penguin Random House India)