George 'Gerry' Mathew Fernandes - the almost Catholic priest, raging trade union leader and former Union Minister of Defence, who is often remembered as the 'rebel politician', passed away earlier today at the age of 88.
However, the able politician was taken away from public memory much earlier, almost at the turn of the last decade. Alzheimer's and Parkinson's stole away the better memories from the man, who was almost rendered silent at the final stage of the disease, having forgotten the many languages the polyglot (Fernandes could speak ten different languages!) could once fluently communicate in.
However, people remember Fernandes for numerous other reasons. He was a passionate trade unionist who was almost revered by poor mill workers, whose rights he protected and fought for. But even before his tryst with the labour movement, Fernandes almost became a Roman Catholic priest.
As a 16-year-old, Fernandes joined St. Peter's Seminary in Bangalore and studied there for two and half years before leaving the seminary at the age of 19 because, “I was disillusioned, because there was a lot of difference between precept and practice where the Church was concerned.”
Soon after he made his way to Bombay, where he would later cross paths with veteran union leader Placid D'Mello, while he was working as a proofreader for a newspaper. Over time, Fernandes joined the socialist trade union movement and rose to prominence in the 1950s as a torchbearer in the Bombay labour movement.
It was however the 1967 general elections that changed Fernandes' life forever. He ended up dethroning Congress' S. K. Patil after contesting the elections from South Bombay and was soon christened as "George the Giant Killer" following this win.
But when Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency in 1975, Fernandes stepped forward to challenge what he and his supporters believed to be a 'blatant misuse of power'. As if that wasn't enough, he even went ahead and called Indira Gandhi a “congenital liar”. Yet, he didn't stop there.
George Fernandes took his 'crusader' title to heart and became the first minister to question multinational giant Coca-Cola about the formula they used in their concentrate. It was in 1977 when as the then Union Minister of Industries he announced that he will no longer allow the company to continue its operations in the country. He had said, “Our policy toward multinationals is uniform," he said, adding that the companies must "abide by the law of the land if they want to be in business in India.”
After a long battle of words between the bottlers and the Fernandes' party who wanted Coca-Cola (and IBM) to shut shop in India after they refused to dilute their stake in their local partners, the government denied a license to import Coca-Cola for the ongoing year, which almost ended the marketing operation for the brand.
After an absence of 15 years, Coca-Cola finally re-entered the Indian market, and has maintained its stronghold ever since.
The man has dogged numerous controversies of his own, be it the Barak Missile scandal or the Tehelka episode, yet we need to remember the man who made the Konkan Railways a reality, and acted with par excellence as a defence minister during the Kargil War and Pokhran nuclear tests.