Book review by Bhaskar Parichha
Title: The Life and Times of George Fernandes
Author: Rahul Ramagundam
Publisher: Penguin /Allen Lane
“Always for the people and never with the establishment”- that sums up the persona of George Fernandes. One of India’s firebrand leaders, Fernandes (1930-2019) lived his life fully and with resolve. He was a multifaceted personality: a trade union leader, a socialist, and a powerful orator. No other politician in India had risen to such heights of popularity as Fernandes was. A down–to–earth politician, he has left behind him an unparalleled legacy.
The Life and Times of George Fernandes by Rahul Ramagundam is one of its kind biographies – well-researched, colossal, and one which tells the story of a leader in minute detail. It is hard to find a biographer so immersed in the subject that it becomes a monumental work.
Reads the blurb: “George Fernandes is popularly known for leading the All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF) in 1974 and calling upon its approximately 1.7 million employees to strike, which brought India to a halt for twenty days. Often described as a rebel, he pursued every cause he took up with passionate devotion, heedless of the many ups and downs in his life. From the early years of fighting for the rights of the dock and municipal workers of Bombay through the Emergency, which he resisted by going underground, to his last private decade as a bed-ridden Alzheimer’s patient, his fights were always persistent and single-handed. It chronicles the story of George, who rose from the streets of Bombay to stride the corridors of power.”
If Fernandes was known for trade union militancy, politically he was dauntless. A rebel political leader, he was an anti-capitalist dreamer. George could call Bombay to shut down and rose from its streets to become India’s Defense Minister.
In this amazing biography, Ramagundam records George’s political evolution and traces the course of the Socialist Party in India — from its inception in the 1930s to its dissolution into the Janata Party in the late nineteen-seventies. In the process, the book explores the trajectory of India’s Opposition parties that worked to dislodge the long-ruling Congress Party from its preeminent position in the thick of the emergency.
Ramagundam received his doctoral degree in modern Indian History at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He was associated with a grassroots movement in the united Madhya Pradesh for many years. Presently, he teaches at a Delhi-based university and also is the author of Gandhi’s Khadi and Socially Excluded.
In the prologue, Ramagundam writes: “The book tells the story of India s tortuous post-Independence building and the role of George Fernandes in it. In some ways, the book presents a contemporary history of India through the lens of George’s life and his political work. The story has George’s political emergence at its center but does not emanate merely from his perspective.”
Explaining the basic objective of the book, the author says, “This is not a narrative of events – however defining they might have been. A biography is a chronicle of an evolutionary process and not a conglomeration of self-standing events in the subject’s life. Events shall feature here, as they are bound to be in a book dealing with a political personality. But more than the events, the book is a delineation of processes that define Indian politics. It delves deep into the evolution of India where George lived and worked tor. He also attempts to enter the political mind and probe the political choices George made.” If the book tries to present an insider’s account it also strives to construct those processes with documentary evidence and oral testimonies.
Divided into a dozen chapters with acronyms, a chronology of events, dramatis personae, and a guide to sources, there is nothing that the author has not covered about George’s action-packed life.
From his Christian beginning to the revolutionary road, George’s Bombay days, the sobriquet that George earned — More Dangerous than the Communists– the most hunted man, George’s underground days, how he was chained and confined, the gritty years — the book has all that Fernandes was made of. But it is in the last chapter (‘They Hate My Guts’) that Ramagundam exposes the double-speak of leaders who were close to Fernandes.
Says the book: “The pedigreed hated him. The plebeians felt jealous at his powerful expression of their predicament with a perspective they lacked. Left with Bihar alone, the English-speaking socialist imports (J.B Kripalani, Asoka Mehta, Madhu Limaye, and George) won there because of their national and wider outlook to the disadvantage of the homegrown socialists. Sooner or later, to survive in Bihar politics, when caste-parochialism was raising its monstrous head all over, it was inevitable that George would have to depend on the accruing local elements and accord them primacy.”
This particular incident was one of the saddest ones in George’s life and was played out in full glare then. Ramagundam recollects the episode in the book: “In the 2004 general elections, Nitish Kumar made his return to Muzaffarpur, where he won, but in 2009, when he again desired to stand for election from the same constituency, his party headed now by Sharad Yadav, a front of Nitish Kumar, denied him a nomination. As a consequence, a fumbling George, Alzheimer’s disease already having taken some visible grip over him, was made to fight the election as an independent and he lost his deposit, denying him a graceful exit. The unsavoriness of George contesting the election against his party was opposed by his family members, who blamed Jaya Jaitly for it. Michael Fernandes wrote to Jaya about it and asked her not to make a mockery of him. And, after the election, in which he not just lost his deposit but showed up as decrepit his inability to campaign exposed to the world, Leila Fernandes put out a public statement expressing her displeasure at the goings-on in his life and politics.”
Concludes Ramagundam: “George Fernandes lived a life driven by a commitment that was experientially born, he had ideologies to believe in, and for most of his life these ideologies seemed to be personified in his endeavors and struggles, but beyond that, he lived a life of experiences, up close and personal, that is left for future generations to sort out and sift through, and learn from.”
Comprehensive, evocative, and unputdownable, this definitive biography of George Fernandes is a tour de force. It is not only the biography of George Fernandes but also an account of the times gone by in contemporary India.
Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of Unbiased, No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.
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