Returning from China in 2003, George Fernandes broke journey in Singapore and visited my flat in the Nanyang Technological University campus where I was teaching in the journalism school. He seemed somehow subdued, his voice almost a whisper, but what he said was arresting. “I’ve got a new slogan for them when I get back — ‘Chase China!’.”
The words didn’t sound as if they would galvanise an Indian mob but George was so profoundly impressed by every aspect of the progress China had made that he wanted India to emulate it. “Chase China,” he murmured, pleased with the sound. He spent the rest of the evening not exactly denying he had ever called China India’s “Enemy Number One” but explaining it was a Hindi filmi phrase (“like Hero Number One”) that he didn’t understand. George’s enthusiasms were as ardent as his explanations were long-winded.
Given his lifelong teetotalism, it was paradoxical that our first encounter was in a London pub in early 1970. I don’t know what George was doing in England but I was finishing my stint as The Statesman’s first Indian representative there. The lease of my flat in Hampstead having ended, I had moved in with a friend, M R Sivaramakrishnan, a diplomat I had known since his posting in Hong Kong. Siva had to meet George and chose the pub across the road from India House because it was after office hours. I was keen on seeing one of the legends of the 1967 election and remember a tousled (as he always was I later learnt) man in a shabby brown tweed jacket with a woollen scarf wrapped round his neck in the style of English university students of that era. In fact, with his glasses, pleasant smile and bright inquiring look, George might have been a student himself.
We didn’t actually meet until about 15 years later when he telephoned me from Delhi about a conference on Tibet in his house. David Ennals, whom I had known when he was a minister in Britain’s Labour government, was a speaker. He also roped in Zail Singh, who came (I suspected) not to support Tibet but to defy Rajiv Gandhi with whom he was publicly at war. Tibet wasn’t a sudden infatuation like China for George. It was a long-standing affair like Myanmar. Why he asked me I don’t know; perhaps he had heard of my interest in another lost cause, Sikkim. But George didn’t regard Tibet as a lost cause. Nor did he see any problem in reconciling loyalty to Tibet with admiration for China. He also admired Vietnam, especially for its pragmatism in coming to terms with the superpower that ravaged the country for nearly two decades and killed three million Vietnamese.
Socialism was not a doctrinaire creed for him but an expression of caring. He was horrified when asking for water in a dusty Muzaffarpur village, he was told that only Coca-Cola was potable. “Do you need an American bowl for potty?” he asked in outrage because Rajiv’s liberalisation had meant foreign household goods. “Aren’t Indian suitcases good enough?” No wonder he had sent Coke and IBM packing. The technical justification covered a deep philosophical objection.
I asked why an agnostic secularist and former Christian seminarian should support Hindu revivalists. In reply, he spoke at length about hosts of eminent people who had pleaded with him, leaving me with the conclusion that like E M Forster, he placed friendship above other considerations. I could understand his hurt when a prominent journalist whom I shan’t name attacked him. “I sent him abroad for the first time you know!” George exclaimed. Another incident illustrated the conundrums in which he found himself. Dropping in unexpectedly at his Krishna Menon Marg (New Delhi) bungalow, I found George sunk in gloom. Hearing that the Congress party managers were giving substantial inducements to election candidates, he had sent one of his own aides to pose as a turncoat intending to expose Congress corruption after the man returned with the bribe. He didn’t. He pocketed the money and vanished. Among other inconsistencies, I remember him performing the mukhagni rite as solemnly as any loyal Hindu son when Mrs K K Chettur, mother of his long-time partner, Jaya Jaitly, died.
For all that he blazed like a meteor across the revolutionary sky, George Fernandes was an innocent among the cut-throats and pickpockets who infest the political jungle. He was too good a man to achieve spectacular success in the game of thrones. RIP
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