George Fernandes, a Trusted Friend Who Helped Me Without Any Expectations

A tribute to the former defence minister, a tireless crusader who fought for the working class.

When you think of George Fernandes – who passed away on January 29 after a prolonged illness – the image that comes to mind is of a fiery rebel, a fearless iconoclast, a tireless crusader who fought for the working class and, most of all, a formidable trade union leader during the 60s and 70s who influenced our times.

He was also filled with controversies and contradictions. As an industries minister, he sent shivers down the spines of industry leaders by driving IBM and Coca-Cola out of India. He was a passionate socialist who effortlessly cohabited with the BJP – and by extension, the RSS – winning them over and joining the BJP-led NDA government.

As a defence minister, he was loved by the troops, but he also courted controversy in defence procurement scams – though later absolved. He was a shrewd political leader who inspired confidence among his peers and allies, but he was also accused of being partial to his long-time companion and associate Jaya Jaitley in the Samata Party he founded with Nitish Kumar.

To me, he was a trusted and loving friend who helped and bailed me out numerous times – without any quid pro quo, a rare quality in people who wield power.

He had many endearing qualities. He was not pompous. He dressed in his trademark unstarched khadi kurta and pyjamas, washed with his own hands. He sported uncombed luxuriant crop of hair with elan. He was completely self-assured in his bearing and clothing. The apparel did really speak of the man. He was blunt. He disarmed you with his simplicity. He was astute, razor sharp and well-read.

Also read: The Antinomies of George Fernandes

Here are some reminiscences. My just-launched low-cost airline had been brought to its knees. There was a change of government, and to my alarm, my files would not move in the ministry. Parking in metros was denied. Import permission for aircraft that were already paid for was stalled. Licences and approvals for foreign pilots and engineers we had recruited were rejected.

The established airlines feeling insecure about the new low-cost one had successfully lobbied to stop me in my tracks.

I went from pillar to post and did the usual rounds of meeting the who’s who at the Centre. It was to no avail. I was petrified. I was running out of time. The airline would go belly up any day.

Then, I met S.M. Krishna, the then chief minister of Karnataka, who advised me to go see George. “You know him. He admires you because your low-cost airline has given wings to common people. He has a vast number of friends in power circles and people won’t say no to him. He’s empathetic and always helps underdogs. I will also put in a good word,” he said.

Thus, I went to meet George, who said, “Captain, why didn’t you come to me earlier? How can anyone put obstacles before an airline that is enabling common people to fly?”

Also read: With George Fernandes’s Passing, the Story of Collective Labour Action Ends

He took my hands and led me to 3-4 ministers – including Sharad Pawar, who was his close friend – and told them that they must go out of their way to remove all obstacles in my path. After that, it was smooth flying in every department. Instead of red tape, there was a red carpet.

George helped me often after that, cheerfully and willingly putting me at ease, especially with defence airfields where we had innumerable problems. Once, after he had spoken to the head of a defence establishment, I asked, “Mr Fernandes, can I come back to you if the job is not done?” With a mischievous glint in his eye and a smile on his lips, he said, “Do you think I was requesting him? I gave an order.”

I visited him often after that, and he and Jaya – who was with him those days – were most courteous and hospitable. He took my company’s helicopters many times and insisted on paying for it, always saying, “You are a struggling first-generation entrepreneur from the army. I want you to succeed. Your success will inspire ex-servicemen who struggle after they retire at a young age.” I was overwhelmed and touched.

“The evil that men do live after them; the good is often interred with their bones,” goes a saying. There’s some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. So, this is my tribute to the man who was good to me without expectations.

May George saheb, as he was fondly known, smile from the heavens.

Captain G.R. Gopinath is an author, politician and entrepreneur who founded Air Deccan.