Tuesday, June 9, 2009

George Fernandes bows out

The first time I saw George Fernandes was outside Pune railway station when he was addressing a rather sparsely attended public meeting. Although the crowd was not large, they were also those who were listening with rapt attention with an attitude akin to hero worship. He was in his usual crumpled kurta and pajama, speaking on a subject which I can’t remember. But I do remember stopping in my tracks, watching to gawk at a person, who in his time had become a mythical figure. He had arrived on the political scene by emerging as a major trade union leader from Mumbai, and had defeated the local Congress satrap, S.K.Patil in a surprise defeat that ended his political career.

Of course, the legend of George Fernandes was born during the emergency or a little before in 1974 when he organized a railway strike of such proportions that it is still remembered. The railway strike is considered to be one of the factors that eventually pushed Indira Gandhi to the wall and made her declare a state of emergency. His escapades on numerous occasions and eventual arrest further added to his aura. Post emergency, “ giant killer”, George Fernandes became known for espousing socialism by kicking out giant companies like Coca Cola and IBM out of the country.

George in his time was an effective leader who began well but has ended his political career miserably losing as an independent candidate from Muzaffarpur to an octogenarian Ram Sundar Das, after being disowned by his own party, the Janta Dal (United). The journey from his native Mangalore to Muzaffarpur via Mumbai has taken George 79 years, but the unnoticed fading into oblivion in the last election, where the once famed giant killer managed just 22, 00 odd votes’ shows that the lion has roared its last roar and has now no bark left. Vajpayee has earned much more respect after fading out gracefully after losing the 2004 elections and not contesting at all this time.

The debate as to whether politicians should have a retirement age will never end. After all, politics is a form of public service which typically a citizen ought to be engaged in all of his or her active life. May be politics has become a debased form of public service – but let us not forget that in its essence that is what it is. But whether it is the sports field, or the political arena or the field of public service, the discernment to guess when one’s time is over and to retire gracefully while some luster still remains attached to the name is an art not many learn.

Consider the case of the Marxist patriarch Jyoti Basu. After serving as the chief minister of West Bengal for more than 25 years, he stepped down from the post and then gradually from other party positions within his party – the CPI (M) but remains widely consulted and relevant and possibly more astute than those in formal positions of authority. He knew when to bow out and there by only increased his influence and standing in public life.

George saab began well as an activist who could bring the most powerful powers and personalities to their knees. That time he was altruistic. But along the way, he jettisoned not only his socialist and secular ideology but acquired for himself the sobriquet of the supreme opportunist. Who could sell his soul not once, but perhaps many times over?

The George Fernandes era is over and he is not coming back. But by not knowing when to step out of the arena and leave the team to others, he might have lost, not just his soul but his legacy too.


Winnowed said...

Very good article. I didn't know that the chap is 79 years old!

victim said...

nobody in the politics has had the guts like george ferdandes. not even a single one,well his era is over but nobody is like him in politics.