George Fernandes, a lifelong socialist despite his political adventurism that included Cabinet posts in two ideological opposite governments where he ousted Coca-Cola in 1977 and oversaw the Kargil war in 1999, died on Tuesday. He was 88.
Fernandes was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, which had forced him out of the public eye for several years, and had recently contracted swine flu, his long time associate, Jaya Jaitly, said, adding that he died at his residence here.
Fernandes, who was born to a Christian family in Mangalore, Karnataka, burst into national limelight when as a firebrand trade unionist in Mumbai he organised a Railways strike in 1974 that brought the country to a standstill. Ironically, he became the Railways minister in 1989 under V.P. Singh’s National Front coalition government, comprising mostly Left-leaning parties.
Despite being a staunch critic of the RSS, Fernandes joined the BJP-led NDA government under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1998 and 1999, in which he was appointed the Defence Minister. Under his stewardship, India fought the Kargil war in 1999. It was also during his tenure that India conducted a nuclear test at Pokhran in 1998.
He was also the Industry Minister under the Janata Party government which had defeated former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1977. Soon he was at loggerheads with industrialists and slapped foreign exchange violation charges against Coca-Cola and IBM, which forced them to shut down their operations and quit India.
Coca-Cola was replaced by a local drink known as 77.
He faded away from public consciousness after unsuccessfully fighting the 2009 Parliamentary elections, ending a political career that began with him defeating veteran Congress MP S.K. Patil from Bombay South in the 1967 Lok Sabha Elections. He subsequently represented Muzzafarpur and Nalanda constituencies in Bihar, and was also a Rajya Sabha member in 2009-2010.
Tributes poured in for the veteran leader, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi saying he was frank and fearless, and never deviated from his ideology.
“A visionary Railway Minister and a great Defence Minister who made India safe and strong. During his long years in public life, George Sahab never deviated from his political ideology. He resisted the Emergency tooth and nail. His simplicity and humility were noteworthy,” the PM said.
Fernandes had played a critical role in the anti-Emergency movement of the opposition parties that ousted Indira Gandhi in 1977. During the 1975-77 Emergency, when civil liberties were severely curtailed and opposition throttled, Fernandes was arrested in the so-called Baroda Dynamite case.
Congress chief Rahul Gandhi expressed his condolences to Fernandes’ family and friends.
“I’m sorry to hear about the passing away of former Parliamentarian & Union Minister, George Fernandes Ji,” he said in a Facebook post.
He is survived by his wife and one son.