I did work with him, not too close, but close enough for a while. I met him in 1973-74 the pre-emergency days. I was part of the Manas publications, which the Emergency brutally killed. What I admired about was his brilliant oratory. He was brilliant in five languages. He was logical. He moved hearts and minds. He had his facts. He won the emotions of his audience.
2. Respect for his Struggle
Like me, he was a South Indian. Like me, he was a Catholic. Like me. he was an ex.seminarian. But his struggles after he left the seminary were profound. He survived on platforms before he became a nightmare to unjust employers and dictators alike. He was an incredible Indian.
3. Awe for his dreams for the Young
As s fiery leader and champion of youth, he wanted to create a land army of the young so that every young person would have land, employment, income and prosperity. But when he did become an influential minister he opted for Industry and Defence, the lucrative ministries. He abandoned the youth. He forgot the dreams. He became another politician. His house as defence minister figured in the scandals as a place where deals are fixed.
4. The dilemma at the Enormous Popularity of “Jontis Fandis”
George Fernandes was the heartthrob of Bihar. Many of them could not even pronounce his name. They called him Jontis Fandis. He was the Messiah of Social Justice. So far so good.
I once travelled to Muzaffarpur. I had gone to meet Dr. Margaret Owen, then in her 70s heading the Leprosy Mission Hospital there. She was a world authority on the treatment of leprosy. I was then working on “Better Care in Leprosy’, the simplest book ever written on the subject. Margaret Owen also used to teach “Leprosy” in the Muzzafarpur Medical College. Dr Owen drove me to the medical college for one of her lectures.
At the medical college what we saw was all the students were rushing out because George was in town. For them, George was more important than Leprosy. There were only 7 lectures on leprosy in the entire medical course. They had sacrificed one of those for George. ” Do these popular leaders ever teach values and responsibility to their followers?” asked Dr Owen. Bihar in those days had the highest prevalence of leprosy. For many years some doctors in Bihar will not know how to treat leprosy. Thanks to George.
I was at a dilemma to explain to Dr Owen, I myself was then a fan of George, the giant killer.
5. Wow to a Simple But Straight Talking Minister
The first portfolio George handled was Communications (posts and telegraphs). After swearing in he went to the nearest post office and stood in the queue to buy stamps. As usual, the dealing clerk was very rude to him. Another occasion he took his friends to Kake da Hotel and sat on the footpath for dinner. As the minister, he addressed the captains of Industry. He asked them what makes you behave like rats? No diplomacy. Straight talk. No public relations. He was referring to their behavi0ur during the emergency. George was capable of that.
6. Gratitude for a Personal Favour
In 1979, I won a British Council scholarship. I was to leave for higher studies to the London University Institute of Education. I applied for my passport. The passport would never come. The date for my travel was imminent. I went to meet George. His P.S. at that time Ravi Nair was quick to act. A special passport was issued to me at the discretion of the then External Affairs Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee within 48 hours. If Ravi and George had not helped I would have never made it.
7. Amazed at his Capacity for Opportunism
When Morarji Desai as Prime Minister faced his major crisis, George Fernandes was the loyalist who defended him eloquently, logically and with facts. He made an eloquent defence of the Prime Minister on the floor of the House. The next morning he joined the other side.
8. Extreme Sadness at his Untimely Death in 2002
George Fernandes, the leader I admired died in 2002, when he could not stand up to the genocide in Gujarat. He made many farcical visits to Gujarat. He sold his heart and soul to that vast experiment with untruth. India’s boldest and most daring statesman, the hero of the emergency had fallen. But there are many who surrendered their souls to untruth at that time. For me George died then.