Debating India

The meaning of George Fernandes

Saturday 23 October 1999, by NOORANI*A.G.

A critique of the man and the Minister.

A COLLEAGUE in his Samata Party, Jaya Jaitley, said before the votes were counted, that George Fernandes does not aspire to be Prime Minister of India. That comment tells us a lot about him and, incidentally, about Jaitley herself. It is astonishing that such a thought should have crossed their fevered minds at all. In the entire front rank of public figures today, there is not one person who is more discredited than he as a politician, a Minister and as a person. He has been ideologically fickle, polit ically unreliable and a disaster as Defence Minister.

Two constants, however, stand out - unbounded ambition unmatched by aptitude and exhibitionism in the service of opportunism. No one can tell what he stands for. Why did he demand peremptorily of Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee, at the swearing-in o f his Ministers on March 19, 1998, the Defence portfolio and not Labour, having flourished as a trade unionist all his chequered life? Why did this noisy champion of the downtrodden and the deprived, this denouncer of economic and social inequalities, ad opt silence on these themes and prefer to exercise his lungs on matters of national security on which he had kept his expertise so well concealed all these years?

The Samata Party’s election manifestoes of 1996 and 1998 provide a clue. The 1996 document had two pages on "foreign policy". It rejected the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but said "the country will keep her options open" - not exercise it.

Also, the "party firmly rejects the theory of dominance and deterrence" (emphasis added, throughout). Both formulations were repeated in 1998. Even a few weeks before Pokhran-II, there was no pledge to acquire nuclear weaponry. The concept of "deterrence" was lumped with "the theory (sic) of dominance" for a joint burial. Both manifestoes urged the "active involvement of India in international movements to ban research and development in the weapons industry."

But an altogether new section on "national security" was added in 1998. It began with an attack on all previous governments "irrespective of the parties that led them, to put national security on their high priority agenda." This, a favourite refrain, is repeated at the beginning of the Foreword he wrote (on December 17, 1998) to the Penguin reprint of D. R. Mankekar’s book The Guilty Men of 1962: "National security and defence of our territory have not been priority items on the agenda of India’ s governments, starting with that of Jawaharlal Nehru’s."

The 1998 manifesto of his party proceeded to dilate on China’s "threat" to India and its liaison with "Burma" (sic). The old nomenclature was used three times. It said: "By refusing to take up the cause of the Bhutanese people who are agitating through p eaceful means to establish a democratic polity with a constitutional monarchy in Bhutan, India is further weakening its defences in its northern frontiers." Fernandes’ recipe, if adopted by the Government, would understandably annoy the King of Bh utan, impair India’s existing close relations with that country and weaken India’s defences in a strategically important region. The sheer arrogance of this simplistic, ignorant plea is amazing.

It is a man with such an outlook and intellectual equipment to whom Vajpayee entrusted the Defence portfolio. The results are there for all to see. Fernandes single-handedly damaged India’s friendly relations with China. It took a year to repair the dama ge. He politicised sections of the armed forces, wiped out a decade’s record of progress on the Siachen issue with Pakistan, undermined the morale of the entire armed forces by sacking the Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, and acted with egregious incompetence in the Kargil crisis. Consistent prevarication provided constant company to an unsteady and destructive hand. It is grossly unjust to compare him with an ill-starred predecessor. For all his flaws V. K. Krishna Menon was an educate d man. More, till the very end, he remained true to his ideological beliefs. Fernandes is pitiably ignorant and fickle in his ideological commitments.

"The demolition of the Babri Masjid and the events that followed it have created conditions which threaten to strike at the very basis of our nationhood," the 1996 manifesto of the Samata Party declared. These strong words were not followed by denunciati on of the perpetrators of the crime but by the plea: "The political leadership must encourage the two communities involved to find an amicable solution to all outstanding issues in a manner acceptable to all and in keeping with the dignity and self-respe ct of each community." The formulation was repeated in 1998. The evenhandedness is spurious. In effect it urges condonation of the crime of 1992.

BY 1996, Fernandes had become an open ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party after a phase of tacit liaison. The cover was blown in 1993. As Christophe Jaffrelot records in his classic The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India (page 472), on July 29, 1993, the P. V. Narasimha Rao Government introduced the Constitution ’80th Amendment’ Bill, along with a Bill to amend the election law, designed to delink religion from politics. "George Fernandes (Janata Dal), in a dissenting note to the Joint Committee Report, objected that no change in the law was needed; rather, a political response to the challenge of communalism had to be worked out" - presumably the kind of response enunciated in his manifestoes. Elections in India 1952-96 by J. C. Aggarwal and N. K. Chowdhry (Shipra; 1996; page 71) mentioned Fernandes as a "prime-mover" for the BJP-Samata pact, but added that Jaya Jaitley "has also been involved in bringing Fernandes close to the BJP. Quite a turnaround anyhow."

Against this background, none should be surprised at the improprieties which Praveen Swami records in his book The Kargil War (Leftword Books; 1999). He writes: "The rise of the Hindu right to power was anticipated by the systematic infiltration of the highest levels of the Army apparatus. While the bulk of the Army leadership remains avowedly apolitical, the BJP has made methodical efforts to subvert this tradition, dragging a section of senior officers on to expressly partisan terrain. The deci sion of Director-General of Military Operations M.C. Vij and Air Vice-Marshal S. K. Malik to brief the BJP National Executive on the Kargil War on May 6 is just one example of this process. 3 Infantry Division commander Lieutenant-General V.S. Budhwar he lped provide logistical support for the RSS-organised Sindhu Darshan festival at Leh in 1998. Advani and RSS ideologue Tarun Vijay were among those who attended. In 1999, he again attended the Sindhu Darshan, organised with official aid, and graced by Va jpayee, Fernandes and Advani."

No wonder that Fernandes so readily gave a clean chit to the Sangh Parivar for the Staines murders after a hurried trip to Keonjhar on January 27, 1999. "There does not seem to be any motive," he asserted in New Delhi the next day. Even the flawed Wadhwa Commission Report holds that motive there, indeed, was.

THIS is where blind ambition has landed him. Fernandes was never content to be a player. He aspired to be captain and craved for applause by theatrical performances. If the 1974 railway strike led by him sought to bring Indira Gandhi to her knees by para lysing the strategic junction at Moghulsarai, the quixotic venture with dynamites during the Emergency had the same objective - "to transport the explosives from Baroda to Varanasi". The sheer ineptness of the operation and the consistent misjudgment of chosen associates reflect utter incompetence as a leader of men (C.G.K. Reddy; Baroda Dynamite Conspiracy; 1977). Two socialist leaders, S.M. Joshi and N.G. Goray, who were no less opposed to the Emergency, spoke of the "so-called rebels who talke d the language of violence. We tried to tell them that theirs was not the right path; they must act more maturely and sanely if they wish to win back democracy in the country."

Fernandes became Industries Minister in the Janata Party Government but did not figure in Janardhan Thakur’s portraits of All the Janata Men (1978). Fernandes defended the Government in the Lok Sabha on the motion of no-confidence in July 1979 and then deserted it.

The National Front Government of V.P. Singh provided him with a fine opportunity when he was made Minister for Kashmir Affairs in addition to the charge as Railway Minister. This brought him into conflict with another V.P. Singh appointee, Jagmohan, the Governor of Jammu and Kashmir. In his memoirs, My Frozen Turbulence, Jagmohan excoriated Fernandes; not least, for "establishing contacts" with the militants. "Given to a sense of drama he showed no sensibility to the administrative requirements." Last year, as Defence Minister, Fernandes rejected unconditional talks with them. Jagmohan, in turn, was denounced by Jaya Jaitley in her review of the memoirs (The Telegraph; November 1, 1991). Among the epithets she showered were "a megalomaniac" and "intellectual perversity", qualities which Fernandes possesses in rich abundance. The duo’s presence as colleagues in the Vajpayee regime is a sight for the gods.

It was frustrated ambition which drove him into the BJP’s arms. In 1998 he emerged as a player whose votes were vital to the regime’s survival. His skills as a manipulator were freely deployed by Vajpayee. Jayalalitha’s interest in national securi ty was one of her better kept secrets. She denounced him on March 27, 1999 on the Bhagwat issue clearly because the operator had failed to deliver on his promises to her (The Hindu, March 28, 1999).

As unsuccessful were his forays in Bihar. The vendetta against Laloo Prasad Yadav, a former colleague never in awe of Fernandes, yielded poor returns. The latest episode, the clash with the Election Commission, reflects familiar disdain for proprieties a nd for institutions whether from the refusal to be frisked by securitymen at the Delhi airport in 1978 or the politicisation of the army. There are strict procedural rules for soliciting the assessment of the Intelligence Bureau (I.B) or, for that matter , the opinion of the Attorney-General. It is not open to any Minister to do either unless his request is routed through the "proper channels". But, on September 17, Fernandes telephoned Chief Election Commissioner M.S. Gill from Bihar to allege a conspir acy between the governments of Bihar and West Bengal to print in Calcutta excess ballot papers for the election in Bihar. "He said he had spoken to the Director of the Intelligence Bureau in Delhi, who had confirmed this from his sources." Gill, very pro perly, asked him to put it in writing. The next morning the three Election Commissioners met together and asked for an explanation from the Home Secretary with a copy of the I.B’s information to Fernandes. "Back came the report in the afternoon - the DIB had given no such report to Mr. Fernandes" (The Times of India; September 21, 1999). Union Home Minister L.K. Advani confirmed this on September 23. Earlier, on September 18, Nitish Kumar said that Fernandes had told him that the DIB, Shyamal Datta, "had made an inquiry and confirmed the report". The E.C. made its own inquiries and roundly accused Fernandes on September 20 of using the DIB "by his own written admission ... to disturb the constitutional electoral process". This is the first time ever that a Union Minister has been censured by the Election Commission.

The blemished record is not mitigated by any achievement worth the name. What has he to show as Defence Minister, bar the dramatised trips to Siachen? The organisational set-up, with its anachronistic linkage between the Ministry and the Army Hea dquarters, cries for change. It was promised in January to allay public disquiet over Bhagwat’s dismissal. Not one step was taken in the direction.

A. B. Bardhan, the soft-spoken leader of the Communist Party of India (CPI), was outraged by Fernandes’ conduct. Bardhan remarked on January 3, 1999: "It has become apparent that every time he opens his mouth he tells a fresh lie which is not proved and cannot be proved".

All in all, this is a record of recklessness unrelieved by talent and braggadocio barren of achievement. By now, even the egotism has ceased to amuse.

See online : Frontline


Volume 16 - Issue 22, Oct. 23 - Nov. 5, 1999.

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