George Fernandes, former Union minister, passed away Tuesday morning at the age of 88 following a prolonged illness. He had been bedridden for the past few years.
Fernandes was born in Mangalore in Karnataka in 1930. His first stint in politics was with the Janata Party after Emergency. He was elected to Parliament from the Muzaffarpur seat in Bihar in 1977 and was appointed Union Minister for Industries. During his term, he took on American multinational companies like IBM and Coca-Cola.
In an interview in 1988, Fernandes iterated that he was not anti-MNC but pro-Swadeshi. He said: “People keep saying that I threw out Coke but I was well within the law to ask them about the formula they were so secretive about. The Indian legislation stated that in such a situation I could either ask them to go out or dilute their equity to 49 per cent and they opted for the first.”
Fernandes later joined the Janata Dal. He served as Railways minister in V P Singh government from 1989 to 1990. He was instrumental in setting up the Konkan Railway project, which connected Mangalore and Bombay.
In 1994, after the disintegration of the Janata Party, Fernandes formed the Samata Party. It later allied with the BJP and he soon became a close confidant of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He was appointed convenor of the National Democratic Party (NDA).
Fernandes served as defence minister for two terms, between 1998 and 2004. His term was eventful as it witnessed the Kargil war and Pokhran test. Vajpayee stood by him during the numerous controversies, including the Barak Missile scandal.
Fernandes also authored three books — What Ails the Socialists, Railway Strike of 1974 and George Fernandes Speaks.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi remembered him as “the best of India’s political leadership.” He tweeted, “Frank and fearless, forthright and farsighted, he made a valuable contribution to our country. He was among the most effective voices for the rights of the poor and marginalised.”
President Ram Nath Kovind said he was distressed to learn of the death of Fernandes. “(He) served India in many capacities, including as Defence Minister. He epitomised simple living and high thinking. And was a champion of democracy, during the Emergency and beyond. We will all miss him,” he said.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi said, “I’m sorry to hear about the passing away of former Parliamentarian and Union Minister, George Fernandes Ji. My condolences to his family and friends in this time of grief.”