In mid-1994, Nitish Kumar approached George Fernandes at a trade union conference in Dhanbad asking him to take steps to break away from Lalu’s grip and the Janata Dal. His Kurmi caste was being marginalized. Documents had surfaced proving corruption in the purchase and sale of fodder by Lalu Prasad’s Bihar government. George Fernandes went to V.P. Singh asking how we could fight the Bofors corruption if our own house was tainted. V.P. Singh refused to listen. Fourteen members of the Janata Dal headed by George Fernandes, including Rabi Ray, Nitish Kumar, Harikishore Singh and others, covering four states, as required to be declared a national party, broke away and formed the Janata Dal (G) and began a process that ended into the formation of the Samata Party in late 1994. Many of us second-rung Party activists were part of it. We filled the Talkatora Stadium at its formation conference. I was nominated general secretary of the Party on the suggestion of Harikishore Singh, a senior socialist Parliamentarian from Bihar.

The Samata Party went into the 1995 Assembly elections in Bihar fighting all the seats on its own. While Nitish Kumar travelled in helicopters, George Fernandes, as president of the newly formed Party, travelled in an old Ambassador car on Bihar’s legendary roads which Lalu had promised to make as smooth as film actor Hema Malini’s cheeks, but forgot to do so. Meanwhile, a case was filed in the Supreme Court with clinching evidence of the fodder scam. I organized demonstrations everywhere including at Jantar Mantar in Delhi, dressing up two-wheeler scooters as cows. We were called ‘a small but feisty party’ by the media as these demonstrations always had something eye-catching about them.

The 1995 Assembly election in Bihar against Lalu Yadav was a complete washout since the opposition was not united. It was hell for me handling the organizational end with the usual booth capturing, non-deployment of central forces and those pre-stamped ballot papers. When we asked the Left parties to become our ally in the fight against Lalu Yadav, their cynical reply was, ‘Win the elections, and then we will join you’.

The Samata Party got an ignominious seven seats out of the 300 plus that it fought for. Nitish Kumar wanted to resign his MLA seat and keep his Parliamentary one despite strong advice and pleas from all of us immediately after. We sat in the fading evening light at 3, Krishna Menon Marg, discussing this and many other important issues for the future of the Party. George Sahib pleaded most strongly, refusing to permit Nitish Kumar to resign, saying he needed to be stationed in Bihar to fight and build the Party on the ground as its true leader and that being in Parliament was not good enough to capture the hearts of the people of Bihar. In the middle of the discussion, Nitish Kumar suddenly got up and went inside the house. We thought he had gone to the washroom. When he came back he said he had telephoned the press and announced he had resigned his Bihar Assembly seat. He presented our shocked group with a fait accompli. That was probably the first sign of his self-serving ways. I angrily asked how he could defy authority and well-meant advice in this underhand manner. He remained silent, smiling slightly, but he may not have ever forgiven me. After all, I guess, how could a woman speak to him like that? George Sahib was shocked and upset, and relapsed into an angry silence.

In my office drawer, I still keep a wad of pre-stamped ballot papers from Bihar (see photo section). They had been obtained by one of our Party workers and reached me soon enough. They were stamped serially in exactly the same place, positioned just left of the wheel symbol of the Janata Dal (then headed by Lalu Yadav, the chief minister of Bihar). Section 144 was in place on Parliament Street near the Election Commission of India. We could not go in a procession to protest and bring this to the notice of the public. It was too important to keep to a closed door meeting. I made poster-sized cloth banners in protest against the Bihar government and distributed them to our Samata Party activists who kept them folded in their pockets. We walked in twos and threes till we reached the gates of the Election Commission where we whipped out the banners and raised slogans. The media loved it. We discussed the issue at length with the grave Election Commissioners and presented our evidence. They promised to enquire. The very next day news came that the printing press which had brought out these ballot papers had burned down in a mysterious fire which was ignored by the state fire department till a nearby army establishment saw it and raised an alarm. The evidence was thus destroyed and District Magistrate Raj Bala Varma, who was said to be a favourite of the chief minister, was not only promoted but was often seen in close attendance to Rabri Devi when she became the chief minister during the time her husband Lalu Yadav was convicted of corruption.

When Nitish came back he said he had telephoned the press and announced he had resigned his Bihar Assembly seat. He presented our shocked group with a fait accompli. That was probably the first sign of his self-serving ways. 

All these incidents sank after minor short-term storms. ‘Social Justice’ and ‘Secularism’ were justifications for such atrocities to be condoned by the elite media and their aligned parties. These activities kept us busy and in the public eye in the capital of India but made no difference in Bihar which was in the grip of state and caste factors. Since I led all such agitations it did not make me popular among the ‘liberal’ brigade of the Left and Congress. It didn’t bother me in the least.

In the general elections of 1996, the Samata Party formed an alliance with the BJP. George Fernandes argued that the Samata Party needed to do so for its very survival. Secondly, post the Babri Masjid demolition*, George Fernandes did not believe in making the Party untouchable, even as we would fight extreme communal activities. He said joining hands would moderate any extremist thinking, Hindu or any other, since ‘Mandir’ as religious consolidation was merely a counter to ‘Mandal’ which was seen as caste dividing Hindu society. Also, had we not remained a strong separate entity, it was possible that votes from the Kurmi and other backward castes would shift to the BJP, decimating us in the process. There was also a rumour that Nitish Kumar was considering joining the BJP. George Fernandes was lying in Jaslok Hospital in Bombay; he had to be operated for the second time following a head injury he received from fainting in the bath while washing clothes, weakened as he was from a bout of viral fever. It was during this time that an invitation came for him to attend a major adiveshan (conference) the BJP was holding in Bombay; L.K. Advani, its topmost leader, was addressing it. George Fernandes asked Nitish Kumar to go in his place. I suggested accompanying him to dispel media speculation that Nitish Kumar was one step away from joining the BJP. George Fernandes too felt this was a good idea. Advani was very effective in dispelling notions that the BJP was a Hindu-only party. He told the huge crowd that everyone was free to follow any religion or God they wished as long as they accepted they were Indian citizens from a common ancient civilization. We saw no problem with that.

The alliance in the ensuing election saw no campaigning on the Ram Mandir, Article 370 or any other contentious issue. There were no slogans of Jai Sri Ram that had filled the air a few years earlier. It was purely about the condition of Bihar. As usual, I was active behind the scenes. The result of the Bihar alliance was that we succeeded in ensuring that Lalu Yadav had fewer seats than H.D. Deve Gowda in the Janata Dal combine enabling Gowda to be the prime minister. When he later stepped down in favour of I.K. Gujral, the latter telephoned me to seek George Fernandes’s and my support to be the prime minister. He had a good relationship with us, having attended our then-seen-as-maverick international conferences of Tibet and Burma when many others had stayed away.

We were happy that our election strategy had saved the Party (we had six members in Parliament including Nitish Kumar) and saved the country from having Lalu Yadav as prime minister…


Around ten days after coming to power in 1998, the NDA government conducted the Pokhran nuclear tests. Pakistan, too, demonstrated its nuclear capabilities to the world soon after. It was widely believed they had China’s support in the process…

By 2003, China was keen to invite Prime Minister Vajpayee to visit. They  believed they needed to overcome George Fernandes’s years of hostility and reservations first. The Chinese Ambassador made a few courtesy calls at his Raksha Bhavan office, where a tapestry reminding the world of the horrors of Hiroshima hung on the wall above the visitor’s sofa area. These culminated in an invitation for George Fernandes to visit China to pave the way for Vajpayee’s visit. Their invitation was very warm and generous. They offered him an aircraft to visit any part of China the Defence Minister wished. Perhaps this meant a visit to Tibet too. He was terribly excited about the visit. It was not surprising, despite his stand towards them vis-a-vis India’s strategic interests and his support for Tibet. It was a major historic moment for him in his political journey. He saw this as an immense opportunity for him to personally pave the way for cordial relations between the two countries. I knew he was eventually a highly practical and pragmatic politician. Additionally, he was highly diplomatic and a thorough gentleman in his dealings with other countries.

I have been unwelcome among many of the intellectual and political elite for defending Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, on many occasions post the 2002 riots. But it was simply because I saw the truth as it was and not as people wished it to be…

China was in the throes of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic. Everyone was shown wearing masks. George Fernandes carried loads of anti-SARS vaccines among other gifts but chose not to wear a mask. This impressed the people of China. His visit was an eye-opener. He returned to share with us his perception that the two countries shared two goals: overcoming rural poverty and bringing about economic development. He had discussed other commonalities with the Chinese President and the Prime Minister: of corruption, and the immense poverty both still had. While on his visit, he was shown a Buddhist monastery in Beijing where the Prime Minister’s wife worshipped regularly; they were telling him they were not godless. He was highly impressed by their efficiency. Also, George Fernandes did not use their aircraft to go anywhere…

Meanwhile, only a couple of us in the Party know about an extremely tense episode that took place while George Fernandes visited China.

Life Among the Scorpions: Memoirs of a Woman in Indian Politics Jaya Jaitly Published by Rupa  Publications Price: Rs 595 Pages: 308

It is hard to tell the time difference between New Delhi and Beijing at this point of time but the Fernandes entourage had just about arrived in China when at midnight, I was woken from my sleep in Delhi by Nitish Kumar asking for George Sahib’s contact number there. I asked what had happened. He said it was an urgent Party matter. I gave him his personal assistant Ashok Subramaniam’s mobile number. At 6 am, Party General Secretary Shambhu Sharan Srivastava rang me to say Nitish Kumar was desperate to speak to Sahib. He was at war with Raghunath Jha and some senior Parliamentarians from Bihar for challenging him on some irrelevant  matter and wanted George Fernandes to immediately dismiss them from the Party. I was astounded. If he managed to make this happen, the consequences were hard to imagine. Shambhu fully agreed with me. I called Ashok in Beijing right away and told him what was happening. He said Nitish had spoken to him at 2.30 am but Sahib had been sleeping and so nothing had been conveyed as yet. By then, George Fernandes had woken up. I told him an ugly internal tussle was going on here which would break the Party. More importantly, it would be a huge embarrassment for the country if the Defence Minister was seen giving priority and attention to petty squabbles back home. I strongly advised against it. George Fernandes didn’t indulge in any further discussion. He agreed and suggested I draft a note. He said I should convey it to Ashok. His mind was focussed on China. I hastily scribbled a few words on a sheet of paper by my bedside, called Ashok again, and dictated it to him. I still have that sheet and can quote verbatim:

I earnestly request my colleagues in the party to refrain from mutual recriminations and organisational complaints at a time when I am preoccupied with a prestigious and historic visit to China….

Ashok did the needful and the visit went on without any further hitch. Nitish Kumar may or may not know about my role in this…


One important event and its endless ramifications on our polity needs recording as experienced by me personally. I have done this before, elsewhere, but it is too important to leave out of my life’s engagement in public activities. A little déjà vu offering on my part should not be faulted since the Gujarat 2002 riot incidents and accusations have been repeated ad nauseam anyway.

It was my dear friend, colleague and Samata Party MP Dr Betty D’Souza who came rushing to my office space at 3, Krishna Menon Marg, when Parliament stalled immediately upon hearing of the burning of kar sevaks* in a train in Godhra, Gujarat. She said that a furore was created by the members of the NDA while the Opposition refused to be part of a unanimous resolution to condemn the gruesome incident. Some muttered that the kar sevaks deserved it. Others said the ruling members were making enough noise on their own, and thus doubted the need for the Opposition to add their voice to it. It was callous and short sighted, as it may have led to a calmer reaction to the events in Gujarat if national voices had condemned it. This was the tone adopted  by most editorials in the national papers as well, apart from Vir Sanghvi’s editorial which said nothing could justify such barbarity. This resulted in a bandh the next day called by the Bajrang Dal in Gujarat. Late that afternoon, violence ensued.

I remember clearly that George Fernandes rushed in as the evening light was fading. He had been at the prime minister’s residence when they had received a fax from Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, asking for the army to be sent urgently to Ahmedabad to quell the violence.

George Fernandes came away to his residential office, shared this news with me and his personal staff. He ordered for his senior officers to reach Raksha Bhavan immediately. The troops were at that time deployed on a special exercise called Operation Parakram on the Rajasthan border. They were called back hastily and redeployed so that they could reach Gujarat in the early hours of the morning.

This is what I wrote in an article titled ‘George Fernandes and Gujarat riots’ on website, on 1 January 2007:

George Fernandes stayed at Raksha Bhavan for most of the night and himself left for Ahmedabad on the early morning flight. He was soon on the streets of Ahmedabad standing in a truck among the troops. The army helped families escape violent crowds, of which photographs appeared in The Economic Times and others. Harsh Sethi, a well-known Left intellectual wrote in a centre piece in The Hindu sometime later that the army coming out under George Fernandes saved thousands of lives. I know for a fact that Narendra Modi was in constant touch with the Defence Minister and even supported and co-operated when he later organised a citizen’s peace march of 7000 people, including Muslims, through the city. I too was present. Modi addressed the marchers at the end of its journey, thanking everyone for working towards peace.Interestingly, some newspapers reported this totally peaceful and uneventful march the next day with the headline ‘Fernandes’[s] peace march walks over dead bodies’.There was not a moment’s tension or frustration in the relationship between Modi and Fernandes, whether before or after, and this is a fact even if this has annoyed many Modi-haters and some of Fernandes’[s] socialist compatriots…

The late Pramod Mahajan also noticed my article and put my name as one of those on the delegation to visit Gujarat. I found myself on the flight with various MPs including Sonia Gandhi and S.S. Ahluwalia. We visited Godhra and spoke with the very articulate woman district magistrate, saw the burnt bogies, and heard how the perpetrators were the remnants of the gangs belonging to a famous Mumbai don.

From Godhra we came to Ahmedabad where Ashok Bhatt, the state health minister and an old socialist, took us to meet the victims. The Godhra burn victims were unrecognizable, burned black to such an extent you could only see their white eyeballs and the pink of the insides of their mouths. In the other wards, were the victims of gunshot wounds, knife attacks, broken bones and other injuries. They all said it was terrible for the first few days but they were being looked after now. Sonia Gandhi did not say a word.

We then went to the local municipal hospital which was under a Congress municipal administration. Here, incongruously, two rows of white cap- and kurta-clad youth hailed Sonia Gandhi. She cheered up and spoke to many of the patients. We had meetings with the police chief and other senior officials of the administration. I was a little disappointed at the slightly lax body language of the police officers. It seemed as if they were out of shape and had not been alert enough to prevent a lot of the incidents. Many officials were transferred after that.

At the house of Pravinsinh Jadeja, Samata Party president in Gujarat, I met all our Party workers from different localities. Many of them were Muslims. They all said things had been pretty bad but the ministers and administration had responded to every call for help made by them. We also visited some makeshift camps for the victims which were nowhere near as teeming or organized as ours were in 1984. In later tours to villages where my craftspersons and Party workers resided, many old hands among the Muslim community came with their Hindu neighbours and pleaded, ‘Please, Jaya-ben, ask these NGOs and others to stay away from Gujarat. We are at peace with each other and do not eat our meals unless we are sitting together. Some radical mullahs are being sent to spread trouble. We have bundled some into our cars and sent them away.’ I repeated these words at a Telegraph newspaper debate on secularism in Bengal a couple of years later, when these attacks on Narendra Modi would not die down. Interestingly, the whole audience applauded.

I have been unwelcome among many of the intellectual and political elite for defending Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, on many occasions post the 2002 riots. But it was simply because I saw the truth as it was and not as people wished it to be…


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