Coincidentally, the imposition of the Emergency is commemorated in the month of June, as is the birthday of one of its biggest names, George Fernandes. One is on the 3rd of June and the other on the 25th. A group of his colleagues recently celebrated these events on his birthday but highlighted his role in the Emergency together and rightly so, since George is never one to make a fuss about a personal matter like a birthday.
It is strange for all who are closely associated with him to commemorate and celebrate anything concerning him while he is not yet gone from their midst. And yet he could not have gone more completely both in terms of free access and in cognitive abilities and memory. In the limbo-like condition of unknowing, which is the tragedy and horror of Alzheimer’s disease, there is the dilemma of whether one speaks about his thoughts and ideas in the past or in the present tense, because while the mind has gone the person has not.
George is fiercely against any form of self-aggrandizement. He hated the trend of huge cut-out figures of politicians that proliferated from the late 1980s. When a young tribal political worker from Madhya Pradesh wanted a huge sum of money to have cut-outs of his own image during an election campaign George refused and gave him a mouthful. The person switched to another party along with his wife. They could soon be seen with newly acquired gold jewellery. He always grumbled if people put his picture on party posters during elections, muttering that people should be concerned with the name of the party and the election symbol and not a person. He mocked those hoardings that have line ups of mug shots of every leader from the Prime Minister and party president to the ward representative, congratulating an aspiring leader for being appointed to a petty party post. He had contempt for “letterhead and visiting card” netas who need such paper trappings for recognition, because he deduced they obviously did no recognisable public work. He was a person who fought from the streets and pavements up to the point when he could call a total strike in Mumbai on the strength of a phone call, and to being a Union Minister for Communications, Industry, Railways, Kashmir Affairs, and Defence at different times, without money, family name, religious affiliation or caste to back him. It was clear why he can be forgiven for having no sympathy for those who wanted “props” to do politics to supposedly serve the people.
Against this background, the loyalists who held programmes in his name this year need to be faulted for one misstep and one misrepresentation of fact. Firstly, they have widely publicised their demand for George to be awarded the Bharat Ratna for his struggles for the working classes of this nation. While their sentiments can be appreciated, George would be horrified at this demand and roundly tick them off if he was aware of it. He was one of the motivating forces in the Janata Party government that enabled Morarji Desai to abolish these state-given awards as a colonial practice that encouraged sycophancy and lobbying. True to its nature, the Congress government restored the practice when it returned to power in 1980.
The present loyalists are part of the die-hard socialist group that never accepted George’s political actions in creating the NDA, defeating the Congress, and bringing the BJP to centre stage, although friendships between Dr Ram Manohar Lohia, George Fernandes and RSS leaders like Nanaji Deshmukh, Kushabhau Thakre and a host of senior RSS stalwarts were accepted. They had willingly accepted political alliances when the Jan Sangh was a part of the Janata Party government and the BJP gave outside support to the National Front government of V.P. Singh. However, since NDA I, and post the Babri Masjid incident, those who had no role to play in party politics remained antagonistic towards George’s political closeness to the BJP and his long standing friendships with RSS leaders.
During the present commemorative activities they highlighted their opposition to the RSS without realising it was contradictory to the views and actions of the person they were celebrating. It did not seem fair to use a person as a convenient prop for their politics when he is still very much around but cannot speak for himself.