George Fernandes was a proud Indian, a fine diplomat and a charming host.
It is a sad day to learn about the demise of our beloved ‘George’, as he was called fondly. I first met him when he was the defence minister and I the Commander-in-Chief of South Western Air Command at Ahmedabad. I had the opportunity to fly him to Longewala and Bhuj. He knew Bhuj very well. The sight of India Bridge and Lakhpat town brought back old memories for him. He welled up while narrating his experience after the Emergency was imposed – he was kept in a prison at the Bhujia Fort and subsequently in an isolated cell at the Red Fort.
A grounded individual, he was absolutely comfortable having samosa and tea with our soldiers and staff. He showed tremendous respect to everyone in uniform and got emotional when he heard about any military personnel losing life. He was most liberal in assisting families and dependents. He focused a great deal on improving the conditions of our jawans in Ladakh and other far flung areas. I remember the many trips that he made to the Siachen Glacier to visit our troops and to the hospital that was built in the valley nearby. Every Christmas, we happily undertook the tough task of taking a sizeable consignment of cakes, ordered by him from Bengaluru, all the way to Siachen. I recall an incident when the approval of snowmobiles for the Army was turned down and he asked the bureaucrats to visit Siachen to understand the need themselves.
Working under him was a humbling experience. He worked long hours, always signing his files and strongly supporting his secretariat. He was available 24×7, with meetings often held at his house. Far from what papers reported, he never once interfered in our acquisition programme or promotions. While discussing with George, we were allowed freely to project our views. He reserved his comments and spoke in measured words, other than when seeking clarity on a subject. His bold decision-making avoided a repeat of Kargil.
On an early morning, I along with the Army chief sought his go-ahead to mount an air attack on a border post being occupied by Pakistan. Without hesitation, he gave a thumbs up.
During my numerous banquets at the Rashtrapati Bhavan and meetings with visiting dignitaries, I have never come across anyone as articulate as George. His speech at the banquet hosted for the visiting Japanese minister of defence at the Air Force Mess was the most memorable.
He was smartly turned out, not in his usual kurta pyjama and chappals. He amazed the audience with his eloquence and knowledge on Japanese and Indian history. He was a proud Indian, a fine diplomat and a charming host.
On another occasion, we had prepared elaborate notes for him on the problems we faced ahead of a meeting with the Russian minister of defence. At the meeting, George asked me to put across our views despite knowing that I can’t speak for the government. He showed immense trust in his subordinates.
George was a son of the soil, a proud Indian who believed in democratic values. He spoke from his heart, was a do-gooder and a fine leader. His passing away is a great loss to our nation. May his soul rest in peace.
The author is former chief of Indian Air Force.