Whoever would have thought that some day a collection of the speeches and writings of the fire-brand politician, George Fernandes would see the light of day?
Fernandes is known more as a political fighter and a fighter more than a politician. A Lohiaite at heart, he has been acceptable to the Bharatiya Janata Party as a member of the NDA coalition and no one can say that he did not do well as Minister of Defence. In fact he has been very much in the limelight and has been known to have taken some hard decisions. Though, for the time being, he has been literally marginalised by his own party it is as yet too early to write him off.
George Fernandes being what he is one may expect him to emerge on the political scene stronger than ever. A confirmed Lohiaite, when he passed away, Fernandes wrote a very laudatory obituary of his guru which was published in The Illustrated Weekly of India (March 2, 1987) and which said that Lohia ?was undoubtedly the most original thinker and perhaps the only one India has produced during the last hundred odd years?.
Lohia was an iconoclast and had little respect for dynasticism but there is an air of unreality in Fernandes? description of his political and intellectual ranking. In the obituary he wrote, George said that while there is no reason to doubt that Indian history would have taken a different course if Lohia had survived a little longer he also wondered ?who knows if he would have lived to see his dreams converted into reality or died a sad and disillusioned man like Mahatma Gandhi before him and Jayaprakash Narayan after him?.
Prophetic words, Lohia is all but forgotten and alas, so, in a different way, is Jayaprakash Narayan. But that doesn't lessen the relevance of what Fernandes wrote. He wrote of the times he lived in. And that really is the significance of this work. It records the history and what is more the political ethos of his times. The period covered is a bare quarter of a century, between 1964 and 1989. That was the time when the old order was undergoing a change and a new order was being put in its place and George Fernandes was a prominent if belligerent actor on the scene especially in the field of labour. How were things like in those crucial years?
Fernandes wrote in great profusion and on a wide range of subjects such as conditions of the Indian working class, the socialist movement of which he was very much a part, the Emergency, the Janata interregnum, Communalism, the State and Society, Civil Liberties and Human Rights, the tragedy of Indian politics, India'sneighbours, Militarism and Disarmament, Communism and some twenty of his close friends, some of whom are dead and gone.
In a very significant way what Fernandes has done is to record in his own way and in his own words, the history of those times, which make his articles a major source of information. Fernandes, for all his political activity that took a great deal of his time, nevertheless wrote for a number of journals and periodicals like Hindustan Times of Delhi, The Indian Express of Chennai, The Telegraph of Calcutta (now Kolkata) and The Daily of Bombay (now Mumbai).
There was a time, in 1982 when he even ran a monthly journal called Otherside devoted to socialist thought and action. It speaks volumes that the journal died an early death but its relevance is that it is a pointer to the times. Who would wish to bring out a similar journal in the year 2006? But the sixties and seventies were times when socialism meant something to intellectuals and non-intellectuals alike and what Fernandes does is to bring a whiff of memory of people like Olof Palme, Ashok Mehta, Sarabhai Shah, S.M. Joshi, Dayanand Kalle, Sibnath Bannerjee and Devraj Urs. How many contemporary readers of the media would have even heard of these people? When Fernandes wrote about them he surely could not have realised that he was recording history; but that is exactly what he has done, and may he live long.
Fernandes writes informally of his ?friend? Bal Thackeray of whom he says that while he had a close friendship with the Shiv Sena chief for more than thirty years, he had reason to ?violently disagree? with him. Indeed, as he put it, ?every strike I organised, every demonstration I led, everything I did in the course of my political organisational work, generally found us at two opposite poles?. But then they would meet, discuss, agree to disagree ?followed by the most appetising meal cooked by his magnificent wife?.
Fernandes? own comments on the rise and growth of the Shiv Sena in Mumbai deserves attention. Writing in 1988, Fernandes said that ?if the Opposition parties in Maharashtra do not bestir themselves and act to capture the imagination of the youth, the Sena may find no serious obstacles in its way to becoming the alternative to the Congress in the state.?
At that point in time, when Thackeray'schildren were still growing up, George could not possibly have foreseen the break-up of the Shiv Sena. The moral is that every party has a normal life span just as every dynasty has a specific period of continuity.
Reading this enchanting book one cannot but wonder at the march of time and what it engenders to a country and its people. Fernandes, of course, like any typical dohian, has many charming, if embarrassing anecdotes to tell about Indira Gandhi.
Once, when Indira Gandhi was asked by a British TV anchorman whether she believed in God, Indira Gandhi was to reply: ?I do not believe in God, I do not need crutches!? Fernandes then relates how, following her return to India from the United States and Britain, Indira Gandhi visited Lord Venkateshwara'stemple in Tirupathi and ?performed every pooja in the book?.
Many of Fernandes? comments on Indira Gandhi are highly critical, but no doubt deservedly. By any reckoning, this is a book of notable merit. It not only brings back memories of another day and age, but significantly it draws a delectable picture of political India in the fourth and fifth decade of its status as an independent country. India has moved on but it will be a poor historian who would not read this book to understand how things were in the country in those twenty five years of turmoil. One need not necessarily accept Fernandes? understanding of events or his views thereon, but Fernandes? power of analysis cannot easily be brushed aside, not only because Fernandes was an active participant in the political process but because he certainly was a transparent one.