George Mathew Fernandes was born in Mangaluru in British India, on June 3, 1930, he died on Tuesday in New Delhi. Fernandes, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, had swine flu for the last few days.
A veteran parliamentarian who was first elected to the Lok Sabha in 1967, was elected nine times to the Lok Sabha. He was the defence minister in the Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance government (1998-2004).
George Fernandes served several times as a Union Cabinet Minister, holding key portfolios like communications, industry, railways, and defence.
He was arrested during the Emergency. George Fernandes and others were charged with smuggling dynamite in an alleged plot to blow up railway tracks and government buildings in the Baroda Dynamite Case.
He was still in prison when he won from Muzaffarpur LS constituency in the 1977 general elections. George Fernandes became the industries minister after the Janata Party defeated Indira Gandhi — whom Fernandes once called a “congenital liar”. This was the first non-Congress government that came to power in Delhi.
India Today magazine report on George Fernandes, June 1979:
His “tempestuous and highly contradictory transitions in his chequered career” read like this — “from novice priest to socialist firebrand, trade union leader to the most wanted man on the run, and, now, a reluctant senior cabinet minister”.
The best Defence Minister – a regular visitor to Siachin
Much before the soldiers-in-Siachen-standing-to-protect-our-borders became the ultimate ‘slogan’ of Indian patriotism, it was George Fernandes who actually took the trouble to visit the jawans standing for long hours at the icy heights of the glacier.
He was the incumbent defence minister when the Kargil battle broke out in 1999. Fernandes in 2003 paid a record 32nd visit to the world’s highest battle field at Siachen glacier.
From hitching rides on army trucks to flying a SU-30 MKI, Fernandes has done what no other defence minister had done before him. A poll in the early 2000s, named him the best defence minister India has ever had until then.
Fernandes made it a point to visit the glacier every six months to see the induction of new units to guard the inhospitable mountains during his stint, which was marked by a huge increase in the defence budget allocation compared to those made by previous governments.
Apart from his own trips, once he had made senior officials of the defence ministry visit Siachen to give them a first-hand experience of what soldiers endure.
He was famous for “forcing” ministry bureaucrats to visit desert posts in Rajasthan when it would hit 50 degrees, Kashmir when it would be freezing and the Northeast when it would been raining cats and dogs.
His peers and opponents say what set Fernandes apart was his desire to understand the jawan more and more.
Fernandes stepped down as Defence Minister in 2004 in the wake of the infamous ‘coffin gate’ scandal — allegations of corruption in the purchase of coffins for Kargil martyrs. He, however, was absolved by two commissions of inquiry.