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Published On: Thu, Jan 31st, 2019

Chikmagalur, George Fernandes’ epic battle against Indira Gandhi

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george-fernandesM CHENNA NAGRAJ ;
NEW DELHI : The death of socialist doyen, veteran parliamentarian and former Union Minister  George Fernandes is not just a sad news but a relief  for a reporter like me who has been an observer from the sidelines. Sad because a fiery leader like George Sab, as he is known in political circles is no longer alive.  The relief, because he is done with his health issues and dependence, sufferings and confinement to the bed due to Alzheimer’s.
I heard his name as a student when his name prominently figured in the cat call taxi strikes of Mumbai and later in  historic Railway employees strike in early 1970sI was his instant admirer after his first rally in Mangalore in 1978 soon after his appointment as a Minister in the Morarji Desai Cabinet. I was just a cub a cub reporter in Lokavani, a Kannada daily published from Bangalore. Though a four sheet small daily, It wielded considerable influence in this  coastal district because its anti-Emergency identification.
For Mangaloreans, he was a local hero shining bright in national scene. He had won his Lok Sabha seat from distant Muzaffarpur with a huge margin that too without his personal campaign while he being detained in Baroda Dynamite case. He was also a prospective chief ministerial candidate of the nascent Janata Party as term of Karnataka Assembly was on its last lap and was in its extended term having completed its five year term. 

His aggressive oratory in his mother tongue, Kannada and several other languages, his trade union background and presenting himself a victim of oppressive regime were all factors that favoured him with the urban masses in a state that had witnessed dull politics./ South had remained a Congress’ bastion and the performance of Janata Party was derided as ‘zero, one, two three’ — going by the number of Lok Sabha seats, the party had won in the southern peninsula. The party won no  seat in Kerala, one in Andhra Pradesh, two in Karnataka and three seats in Tamil Nadu. 

         Mr Fernandes’ plunge into Karnataka scene was immediate. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had lost in Raebareli and was under compulsion to seek entrance to Lok Sabha. Chikmagalur MP, D B Chandregowda vacated the seat he had won with handsome margin. Personally George was itching for the contest. Parts of this constituency happened to be from adjoining Mangalore, his home district. He started his campaign from busy congested Avenue Road in Bangalore holding bucket in his hand seeking donations for this historic fight. In minutes, this bucket would be full of currencies from traders and even onlookers. He had made this fight a people’s battle.
Sadly in the Janata Party, there were no volunteers in this contest. State party chief and former chief minister Veerendra Patil was from far off northern district of Gulbarga, hence an ‘outsider’. The other obvious choice was Ramakrishna Hegde, but he had just lost Karwar seat. Leader of Opposition in the state assembly was H D Deve Gowda and was  from neighbouring Hasan district with sizeable Vokkaliga population. He was not game for it. The party even tried to rope in Kannada matinee idol  Rajkumar but he too outrightly refused.

Ultimately Mr Patil was the choice. He had good image of a deft administrator and his Lingayat community had significant voter presence. But he was reluctant to be in this big battle. It turned out to be bitter fought fight between a wounded tigress — Indira and her arch enemy — George Fernandes.  The nation was on the edge. Suddenly, this sleepy town in the lap of Sahyadri range was in international focus.  It was an epic high pitched bitterly fought battle involving too many outsiders. Chief Minister D Devaraj Urs was Indira’s local commander and could take on the army of the Janata Party. Both sides had no dearth of   forces or resources and all the hell was let lose by both sides in this prestigious contest.

The Janata Party focussed on excesses in Emergency, the detention of top opposition leaders and George himself was a live example of a victim in the high drama battle. Chikmagalur, though a district headquarters had limited infrastructure in terms of hotel and guest accommodations.But the sudden rush of political activists, media personnel from various parts of the country and outside was a big burden the town could not take.

Student activists’s from distant places with their blind anger against the fallen regime descended in huge numbers. Their inability to communicate in local lingo Kannada in Chikmagalur area and Tulu or Konkni in Mangalore  areas, the local language not only proved to be very tough for these activists. The rural folk barely understood Hindi or English spoken by these activists. Even in urban areas Hindi was hardly understood. Print media was the then mode of communication.
However the slogan coined by Indira supporters hit the national headlines. The slogan ’Ek sherni sou langur Chikmagalur bhai Chikmagalur’ was a big hit for the national newspapers. Though Mrs Gandhi too could communicate English or Hindi, for the rural masses, she was ‘Amma’, a goddess like figure. The discussions in the media used to be around her looks, colour of her saree and the pallus she wore.The voter divide was very clear. The educated and the well to do class was with Janata Party and the rural poor and downtrodden class with Indira. 

Most of the Lingayats, Kurubas and upper castes supported Janata Party and majority of Vokkaligas, Dalits and and OBCs were on Indira’s side. She trounced the Janata Party candidate but her margin was lower than the general election and it was victory of sorts for both sides. The ruling party at the Centre had reduced the victory margin drastically but she had won with a handsome margin. In any case, it was George’s battle.

The irony of the whole thing was that Mr Patil joined ranks with Mrs Gandhi in the next couple of years and Mr D B Chandregowda,the MP who vacated the seat for his leader was in the Janata Party ranks decades later.          While this is politics, Mr Fernandes during this battle had established personal rapport with Mr Patil that came in handy when he executed Konkan Rail, one of the most difficult task undertaken by any Railway Minister in the country. The project was not just operational in a record time in the history of Railways, but involved the funding from the States involved. 

It is my personal knowledge that Mr Patil who was the Chief Minister at that point of time would not have budged for such a scheme but for his personal relationship with Mr Fernandes. In any case, but for this Railway project, the country would not have seen E Sridharan, the ‘Metro Man’, who not just completed Konkan project on time but also laid a firm foundation for Delhi Metro which too saw the completion and operationalisation of project within the given deadline or ahead of it.


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