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Congress’ 24×7 man, Gandhi family aide — Oscar Fernandes was the rare kind of party loyalist

Hailing from Udupi, Oscar Fernandes was a 5-time Lok Sabha MP who was also a union minister in both UPA govts. Well-regarded in the party, he was also known for his dance skills.

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New Delhi: A backroom political strategist, Gandhi-family loyalist, five-time Lok Sabha and three-time Rajya Sabha MP, trained dancer — Oscar Fernandes wore many hats, each one par excellence.

The former UPA era union minister Fernandes passed away aged 80 Monday afternoon after months of battling issues following a head injury he suffered this July.

Considered a close aide of the Gandhi family, particularly party president Sonia Gandhi, Fernandes was one of the party veterans deeply valued for the rigour he brought to the party organisation — ranging from election strategising to keeping the party cadre enthused in times of turmoil.

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra described him as a “loyal soldier”, organisational general secretary K.C. Venugopal called him an “irreplaceable mentor” while chief party spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala likened his death to the fall of a banyan tree. Rahul Gandhi said the death was a “personal loss” for him.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi also condoled Fernandes’s death.

In a career spanning over five decades — during which he was always at the beck-and-call of the party leadership — Fernandes often steered the Congress towards election victories.

Also read: Motilal Vora, the Gandhi family loyalist, ‘uncle’ figure & chronicler of Congress history

District president to Rajiv Gandhi’s parliamentary secretary

Fernandes was born to a Catholic family in Karnataka’s Udupi. While still in his late-20s, he began working in the district committee of Udupi’s Youth Congress. It is here that he first met Veerappa Moily, who was also a member of the Youth Congress.

“I still vividly remember us working together, trying to mobilise the party workers. It was one of my first friendships in the party,” Moily told ThePrint. “His loss is like none other.”

Moily revealed that then PM Indira Gandhi was sceptical about giving a ticket to Fernandes for the 1980 Lok Sabha polls since she needed a strong candidate to beat T.A. Pai in Udupi. Pai was a popular banker and disgruntled former Congress leader who had gone on to join the Congress (Urs); defeating him would be no mean feat.

“But I was able to convince her that Fernandes will be the perfect person for this. And he was able to emerge victorious against Pai,” Moily said.

Fernandes’s win not only brought him into the Lok Sabha, but also immediately drew him closer to the party’s high command. He was appointed one of Rajiv Gandhi’s parliamentary secretaries in 1985, along with Ahmed Patel and Arun Singh. The trio were endearingly called ‘Amar, Akbar, Anthony’, after the popular 1977 Hindi cinema which starred Vinod Khanna, Rishi Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan.

Arun Singh, Oscar Fernandes and Ahmed Patel being administered the oath of office by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1985. They were appointed as parliamentary secretaries | Photo by special arrangement
Arun Singh, Oscar Fernandes and Ahmed Patel being administered the oath of office by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1985. They were appointed as parliamentary secretaries | Photo by special arrangement

Fernandes didn’t look back after and his political career only kept growing. He won the Lok Sabha polls five consecutive times, following which he became a three-time Rajya Sabha MP. He was also seen as a mentor for many younger leaders and party workers, often guiding them to negotiate their way through politics.

Burning the midnight oil

Fernandes was also known for his round-the-clock approach to politics; he would often be found cooped up in his office working till 3 am.

“He was a 24/7 party man. Just like Ahmed Patel. You walk into the party office at night, he would be there. You walk in early morning, he would already be meeting people,” former Union minister K. Rahman Khan told ThePrint, drawing parallels between Ahmed Patel and Fernandes.

“It is rare to see the kind of loyalty he had for the party. From the time of Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and now Rahul Gandhi, he was a dedicated party loyalist who was dearly trusted. It is a huge loss for the party that he is gone,” Khan, who is a contemporary of Fernandes’s in the Congress, said. Both men were Rajya Sabha colleagues for several years.

In 1983, he was appointed joint secretary in the AICC, and also briefly served as the president of Karnataka Congress in the late ‘80s.

Fernandes would go on to serve as the Union labour minister in both UPA government’s under Manmohan Singh. He was also appointed minister for Transport, Road and Highways in the second UPA government.

Also read: Congress handed over OBC voters to BJP. And it still hasn’t learnt its lesson

Love for dance & arts

When he wasn’t working, Fernandes spent his time dancing. He was famous for his dance skills and love for art, yoga and music.

A trained Kuchipudi and Yakshagana dancer, Fernandes would pair up with Moily for his dance recitals in Karnataka as well as in Delhi.

“He would play Bhishma, I would play Arjuna,” Moily recalled.

The two often performed together at the Delhi Karnataka Sangha, a forum in the national capital meant to promote Karnataka’s art.

Former union minister and Congress leader Jairam Ramesh also spoke about his friendship with Fernandes. In a series of tweets, he shared a clipping from Rajya Sabha TV of the Kannadiga breaking into a Tulu song about buffaloes.

“Being a farmer, my buffaloes would only understand the Tulu language,” he is seen saying in the clip before starting his song.

Meanwhile, across the political aisle, Fernandes is remembered as a service-minded, committed politician.

“He might have been from coastal Karnataka but was a son-in-law of Chikmagalur,” recalled C.T. Ravi, BJP’s national general secretary and Chikmagalur MLA.

“Despite the political differences, he was always warm, respectful towards everybody. I recall how his wife used to introduce me to him as ‘Ravi from our Chikmagalur’.”

(Edited by Manasa Mohan)

Also read: Congress leader Oscar Fernandes tells story of ‘gaumutra’ curing cancer in Rajya Sabha


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