'The life and times of George Fernandes' book review: Rebel without a pause  

A well-researched biography of George Fernandes, capturing who and what shaped him into the man he was.

Published: 04th September 2022 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 03rd September 2022 07:15 PM   |  A+A-

George Fernandes, during his stint as Defence Minister.

George Fernandes, during his stint as Defence Minister.

Express News Service

It is not easy to produce an impressive political biography of a well-known contemporary figure, who is likely to be remembered by different people in different ways, without making it either a veritable hagiography (the usual outcome) or a critique so trenchant as to lose all intellectual value. Hence, most works of this genre tend to vanish without much of a trace.

Rahul Ramagundam’s biography of the veteran socialist leader, firebrand trade unionist and former Union minister, George Fernandes, is one of the rare specimens of a remarkably balanced, objective-without-being-dispassionate, and sensitive work that is likely to enjoy a long shelf life.

The book provides a credible account of how Fernandes, coming from a Catholic family in Mangalore, abandoned his seminary education in Bangalore and joined the Socialist Party after the latter was forced to leave Congress by the right-wingers of the party.

It carefully follows how Fernandes had his political baptism in his early twenties, organising striking workers in Bangalore and Bombay before emerging from the nationwide railway workers’ strike of 1974 as a firebrand trade unionist and earning political capital among the Bombay workers that lasted almost his entire lifetime.

Fernandes, a one-time admirer of Nehru, eventually shone forth as one of the most determined opponents of Indira Gandhi during the Emergency period, going underground and resorting to armed resistance to the government when he was arrested and imprisoned–– a phase which is reconstructed by the author meticulously using Fernandes’s personal papers from that period.

During the Emergency, Fernandes, the rebel, had his finest hour––in shackles––but defiant. In the years that followed, Ramagundam shows how Fernandes became a virtually indispensable feature for most of the anti-Congress political experiments (except for the United Front in the 1990s), and how a leader, who once objected to the Jan Sangh being part of the Janata experiment on account of its communal agenda, eventually drifted into the BJP’s orbit. This was largely motivated by the politician’s desire to fight for the old Janata Party’s social constituency of backward castes in association with Nitish Kumar, founding the Samata Party in 1994.

The Samata Party joined the National Democratic Alliance government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, with Fernandes holding the defence portfolio for the full term of the government, in the course of which
the erstwhile crusader against corruption himself was accused by the Tehelka exposures. After the NDAdefeat in 2004, Fernandes virtually faded out, marginalised by Nitish Kumar in Bihar politics, and finally suffering from Alzheimer’s for about 10 years before his demise.

Fernandes’s self-perception was that of a socialist leader, devoted to the cause of the people (especially the underprivileged)––an image borne out reasonably well by his politics till about the end of the Emergency. This phase has been treated by Ramagundam meticulously, making it possible for the reader to visualise why, at one point of time in Indian history, socialism held a great promise as a political paradigm. By plotting Fernandes’s journey after 1977, the book explores how that promise failed to develop a critical mass by itself and had to align with socially conservative forces of the opposition to Indira, and frittered away its strength before dissolving in the caste-driven cavalcade of regional forces ‘looking for’ social justice.

In the Indian Left circles, Fernandes is seen as the ultimate turncoat, a renegade, whose joining with Vajpayee was the final act of betrayal of his ideology, his defence of Gujarat 2002 the ultimate act of apostasy. Ramagundam does not allow himself the luxury of such judgmentalism. He simply situates Fernandes’s decision in its political context, accepting ideology (and probably also political morality) merely as window-dressing.

He followed his protagonist through almost every single stage of his life, producing the nearest thing one can get to an authorised biography. His exemplary use of the politician’s personal papers, and interviews of the dramatis personae conducted for over a decade, helped him trace Fernandes’s journey from a Mangalore neighbourhood to his residence in Lutyen’s Delhi in a way that the reader can make sense of the life the politician led, the choices he made, the people he came close to and those who he let down, through the eyes of the protagonist without allowing him to exculpate himself.

Also finding mentioned in the book are the many people who helped shape Fernandes into being the man he was––his broken parental family and siblings, wife Leila Kabir (estranged by his many infidelities, yet returning to him at the very end), his friend Madhu Limaye, his mentors JP and Lohia, and his companion towards the last part of his life Jaya Jaitly–– both as Fernandes saw them and as how others might see them, carefully indicating the differences between the two. Ramagundam worked on this book over a 12-year period. Those were 12 years well spent.


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