With the passing of the towering socialist leader George Fernandes, at the age of 88 after a long illness in New Delhi on Tuesday, the story of collective working class actions in India can said to have truly ended.
Much of the hiring today takes place on a contractual basis, in the style of American capitalism, and that removes an important basis for union action on the part of employees who are fearful of losing their jobs. “George Saheb”, as Fernandes was widely known, came to limelight in the 1960s and the 1970s, a very different era.
Besides regular employees, as in the railways, he organised restaurant waiters as well as Mumbai (then Bombay) taxi drivers and others in the transport sector and had an enormous capacity to bring the great city to its knees.
Starting out as a trade union activist fairly young in the early 1950s, Fernandes earned his spurs quite rapidly in a fairly crowded field in Mumbai’s heady trade union arena.
The All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) of the CPI, led by the legendary S.A. Dange, who had a magical hold over textile workers for close to four decades, was fading by the early 70s. But the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) affiliated to the CPI(M) had the charismatic Ahilya Rangnekar. And there were R.J. Mehta and Datta Samant, the latter a dreaded name who was thought to have been used discreetly to smash the communist-affiliated unions.
But post-Dange, the trade union leader to leave his imprint on an all-India basis was, without question, George Fernandes – both as a trade union maestro and a political personality of the first rank, nationally. The lives of these two famous men, who made Mumbai their home as activists, were woven in threads of very different colours. Their contrasting ideology and politics has an echo for our own times.
Union work had made George famous in Mumbai, to begin with. And then broader politics took over. He became a councillor in the Bombay Municipal Corporation and exhibited some morals there. In 1967, fighting on the ticket of the Samyukta Socialist Party (SSP), he beat the redoubtable Congress leader S.K. Patil for the prestigious South Bombay Lok Sabha seat against all odds, earning a name as “giant-killer”.
An anti-communist from the start
Ideologically, from the start, George was an anti-communist, and worked with the Socialist International, the successor to the Second International that Lenin had disparaged a century ago. At the political level, he remained staunch anti-Congress from start to finish, to the extent that this former Catholic seminary student-turned atheist could find no words to criticise either then chief minister Narendra Modi in the wake of the Gujarat pogrom or the BJP, with which he had begun to closely align himself.
The life of Dange, Fernandes’ senior by three decades, had gone quite the other way round. The son of a stocks and shares trader, he was a deep scholar of Hindu scriptures but was drawn to Marxism and communism, had a role in the founding of the Communist Party of India in 1925, and then shaped the storied evolution of the Bombay working class.
Dange’s tendency had been to take the CPI, of which he had been an architect, to politically fit into alignment with the Congress in order to beat back “Right reaction”. The defeat of this line in the wake of the intra-party debate that followed the Emergency saw Dange’s expulsion from the party he had helped establish.
There is some irony in the fact that not just the CPI but in recent years, even the traditionally anti-Congress CPI(M) have sought accommodation with the Congress, to the extent feasible, in order to push back the RSS-BJP’s present-day dominance of the parliamentary arena.
Abandoning the idea of finishing his study at a Bengaluru (then Bangalore) seminary to train as a Catholic priest, the Mangalore native Fernandes arrived in Bombay in 1950, and carved a niche for himself on account of his bold individualism, native humanism and an innate anti-establishment rebelliousness, which is said to have been the reason why he had quit wanting to be a priest.
Unlike Dange, George Fernandes had a strong third streak, in addition to trade union activism and the broad field of politics. He was a votary of civil liberties and individual rights. He took up the cause of the Tibetans, denouncing the Chinese communists’ expansion into Tibet even when he was a minister at the Centre, promoted the Burmese resistance to military rule in that country, oblivious to his position in the Union cabinet, and as Prime Minister V.P. Singh’s minister for Kashmir affairs thought nothing of secretly meeting with gun-toting terrorist elements. There was a bit of anarchism inherent in these acts.
During the emergency
As a trade unionist, George brought the country to a halt for three weeks in 1974 by leading the all-India strike of railway workers. With Indira Gandhi’s government’s hard crackdown on the strike, which became a probable factor in the declaration of the Emergency the following year, the socialist leader became a household name.
He also came to be known as a staunch anti-Emergency fighter as he led the police on a merry dance in a Scarlet Pimpernel sort of way when they chased him around the country for being the lynch-pin in what came to be known as the Baroda dynamite case. George was said to be plotting to ignite dynamite kegs in carefully selected public places to scare the government into submission.
After the Emergency, George was inducted as the industries minister in the Janata Party government led by Morarji Desai. When a no-confidence motion was brought against this government, George displayed his grasp of politics rather than morals. Befuddling his admirers, he stood up in parliament to put up a passionate defence of Morarji Bhai’s government, only to switch sides within hours to deputy PM Charan Singh who, as would become clear later, had plotted with the Congress to pull down the Janata regime.
Stint as defence minister
George was defence minister in the 1998-2003 Vajpayee government, which turned into a time of scandals. He was accused by the Congress of buying sub-standard coffins at inflated prices from the US for our soldiers who had fallen on the Kargil heights. Subsequently, his name was cleared in this affair.
But there was also ‘Tehelka-gate’. In a sting operation, a Tehelka magazine journalist, posing as a defence supplier, bribed then BJP president Bangaru Laxman (who had to be eased out in a blaze of infamy) and got close to compromising the minister, using as conduit a close companion of his. Then there was the Barak missile purchase stink. A case was registered against George by the CBI (after the end of the Vajapayee government) allegedly for playing a dubious role in 2000 in the purchase of the missile from Israel, though he was able to get out of trouble in the end.
All things considered, the corruption-related allegations, some possibly rooted in politics, were a blip in the career of George Fernandes, who remained an action-packed individual until about 2010, when he was struck by Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Even well past his prime, this stormy petrel of Indian politics cut a dash in his crumpled kurta-pajama wherever he went. Tossing his head back and sideways to tame his unkempt hair, as he spewed racy rhetoric against his opponents, especially Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, he won countless admirers amongst the youth. George never turned abusive, as leading ruling party politicians do today. He could wow audiences in Hindi and English and could hold forth in several South Indian languages too.
Working as a young journalist when George was at the height of his powers, this writer well recalls how soft-spoken and gentle he was in person, in sharp contrast to the fire-eating non-Marxian socialist out to uproot the system when he took the stage.
Anand K. Sahay is a columnist and commentator based in New Delhi.