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12 July 1999

An old lefty marches off to war

John Elliottfinds that India's socialist defence minister is still a shop steward at heart

By John Elliott

India’s defence minister nearly became a priest. After a spell at a seminary, though, George Fernandes opted for trade unionism and socialist politics. His reputation was built in the early 1970s, when he led India’s biggest railway strike and fought Indira Gandhi’s state of emergency by personally dynamiting railway tracks. He was briefly imprisoned but then became industry minister in the new left-wing government and pushed Coca-Cola and IBM out of the country.

Now 69, Fernandes is responsible for the troops fighting Pakistan in the mountains of Kashmir. Usually dressed in a crumpled kurta-pyjama, with a shock of unruly white hair, he looks like a boy scout who, to quote one of his many disenchanted admirers, “never grew up”.

India’s liberal intelligentsia say that this famous old leftie has become a maverick lightweight who has “failed to add value with maturity”. They grumble that he sold his socialist soul last year when, because of regional political rivalries, his small Samata Party joined the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s coalition government. Worse, though a life-long nuclear disarmament campaigner, he has supported India’s nuclear tests.

But Fernandes cannot be dismissed so swiftly as a lightweight and turncoat. He is important because he holds convictions with a sincerity that contrasts starkly with the self-serving corruption of most Indian politicians. He espouses many causes, including that of Tibetan and Burmese refugees – some of the best Burmese food in Delhi is available from families camping in the large, unguarded gardens of his official bungalow. In his sitting-room he has a poster declaring “Pepsi-Coke quit India”. Fernandes knows this is a futile cause but declares: “You must keep the movement alive.” If that sounds like a throwback to Britain’s old Labour movement, it is no accident. Like many politicians of his generation, he was schooled in British socialism. (He proudly declares himself a fervent reader of the New Statesman – he first bought a copy in 1964 at a Labour Party conference in Scarborough.)

Fernandes can still be effective. He recently played a leading role in scuppering the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi’s chances of becoming prime minister of a Congress Party-led coalition. He did this partly from a belief that Indian prime ministers should be Indian-born, but mainly because he despises Congress and its Nehru-Gandhi dynasty for “talking socialism but doing everything possible to maintain India’s exploitative caste and class traditions”.

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He sees himself as “an outsider, not part of the establishment . . . I am not part of your five star and cocktail culture.” He is a shop steward at heart. He insists that he opposed Coca-Cola’s and IBM’s presence in India in the 1970s because they were stealing jobs from Indian employers, not because he is opposed to foreign investment.

Fernandes’ most constructive contribution to the current India-Pakistan conflict has been to visit front-line positions to boost morale. When he went to the 22,000ft Siachen glacier, where India and Pakistan have been sporadically shelling each other for 15 years, he was appalled to discover that ministry of defence bureaucrats had blocked 14-month-old requisitions for new snowmobiles and repairs to a freezing hospital’s central-heating system. He ordered the civil servants responsible to visit Siachen themselves and sent members of his ministry on regular visits to the war zones. When he went on an official visit to France last year, he was the first-ever Indian defence minister to visit a cemetery and memorial for Indian soldiers killed in the 1914-18 war.

Many successful Indians find such a politician hard to take. In this caste- dominated hierarchical society, the lower orders exist to be ordered around, not cosseted. Defence ministers visit Siachen to get their photos into the newspapers, not to help the troops, and they delay purchases of new equipment till they have organised the biggest possible kickbacks. This is not to suggest that Fernandes avoids making political mileage: pictures of him eating with the troops frequently appear in newspapers, and there are rumours that his Samata Party has benefited from kickbacks on arms purchases. But the point is that, while sometimes acting like most of his peers, he also tries to do good.

His outspoken approach can lead him into public relations disasters. Last May, just before India’s nuclear tests, he said that China was India’s “potential threat number one”. This may be in line with the BJP government, which is determined to use India’s nuclear status to reverse an established foreign policy that regarded China as a benign neighbour; but no one was supposed to say it, and the government is still trying to unravel that diplomatic tangle. Another gaffe followed a month ago, when he said that the government had evidence that Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s prime minister, did not initiate the infiltration into Indian Kashmir, and that India might allow the infiltrators a safe passage home. He was crucified in India’s media, though he seems to have been on target – US mediators have been pushing the safe passage idea as a way of ending the conflict.

Twice bitten . . . nowadays this old-style campaigner is focusing on visiting his troops and attending strategy sessions in Delhi, rather than talking to the media. That may not impress the liberal intelligentsia but it does show that modern India can still produce politicians who care.

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