George Fernandes had none of the pettiness of today’s politicians whose first response to a questioning journalist is to shut the door on them.
Politically, George Mathew Fernandes, born 3 June 1930, was a hugely polarising figure. You loved his politics, or detested it. Personally, there weren’t many others who could be as charming as “George Saab” or just “George” as he insisted everybody, even a journalist nearly three decades younger, should address him.
For full disclosure, I must state that I started out entirely on the wrong side of the pole with him on his politics. My first year as a full-time journalist, 1977, coincided with what I saw as his most destructive phase. In a war on the MNCs, he threw out Coke and IBM. Then, he was widely believed to have led the self-destruction of the Janata Party on the issue of dual-membership of those who had come from the Jan Sangh but retained their RSS affiliation. His politics in the subsequent years, especially during the Bofors controversy, was often vile and bordered on the abusive: hum sab ko nanga kar denge (we will strip everybody naked), he famously said. He was the one rival the Gandhi family never had any time for.
Over nearly three decades since he first came to limelight defeating Congress strongman S.K. Patil in Bombay South constituency, he had built a formidable reputation as an agitator, rabble-rouser and incorrigible oppositionist. It was a twin surprise, therefore, when he not only joined Vajpayee’s cabinet (having made such an issue of dual membership in Janata two decades earlier), but was also made the defence minister. Now, what was the most formidable and compulsive disruptionist of Indian politics going to do, heading the establishment’s most conservative wing?
The large legion of George-sceptics was out with the knives, this writer included. We saw each of his actions with a high degree of suspicion and I wrote so often. His frequent Siachen visits were seen as headline-hunting and there were occasions when I wrote that in a democratic system like ours, the Raksha Mantri should not start playing the ‘senapati’.
Manvendra Singh (now politician and a Territorial Army Special Forces officer), who was then covering the defence beat for us, reasoned with me a couple of times, arguing that I was misunderstanding George. I listened, but wasn’t convinced. I thought Manvendra was mostly influenced by George being his father Jaswant Singh’s close friend and cabinet colleague. God knows, and The Indian Express archives hold evidence of the criticism I poured on George.
Until I was made to discover his charming side. We decided to set up a weekly process of inviting a prominent guest to our newsroom for an on-recorded chat, which later developed into the popular weekly feature Ideas Exchange. Manvendra suggested I ask George. Why would he say yes to me, I thought, but still called. George said yes immediately.
That afternoon he walked in, unescorted, and stuck his hand out. I pulled mine back.
“Don’t shake hands with me, George,” I said, “I have a flu.”
“No worries. Nothing will happen to me,” he said, “I am not pedigreed.”
Now there aren’t many Indian politicians you would expect such repartee from. He, of course, held my hand, felt how warm it was, and said a couple of comforting things. From that day on, we were friends, although we kept arguing as usual. Frenemies, you’d say in millennial English.
We wrote reams, including a signed front-page editorial asking him to resign when Tehelka scandal broke. We attacked him later over what was called “coffingate”. We were completely on the opposite side of the argument when he sacked then Navy Chief Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat (subsequent events proved that he was probably right). But every call was still answered and an open professional equation maintained.
In 2003, as I began my first TV show, Walk the Talk on NDTV, I called to ask if he’d give me a head start by featuring on it early enough. And for impact, I said, we had better shoot on the Siachen Glacier. He said yes at once, without a trace of rancour. He had none of the pettiness of today’s politicians whose first response to a questioning journalist is to shut out all access.
You can watch that 2003 Walk The Talk interview here.