George Fernandes dead at 88: Ex-defence minister's tenure defined by attention to detail, fierce commitment
This piece recalls George Fernandes' tenure as defence minister of National Democratic Alliance-I
Fernandes’ tenure as defence minister was among the most eventful in India’s history.
Two alleged scandals besmirched Fernandes’ reputation to a great extent.
Rest in peace, George Fernandes. You did your bit and did it well.
Former trade unionist, socialist leader and defence minister George Fernandes died on 29 January, 2019, at the age of 88. He had been suffering from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson's for some time and lived as a recluse for the past few years. His passing marks the end of a generation of leadership, which saw and experienced the transition from the Cold War and the turning of the new millennium. This remembrance is nothing to do with his political career or adventurism as a trade unionist. It only recalls his tenure as defence minister of National Democratic Alliance-I because that's the way I'd like to remember him. Many others may prefer to remember him by his revolutionary ways.
I met Fernandes only once, although I attended several briefings for him at Srinagar during the Kargil crisis. Our meeting was at the lounge of Mumbai airport and I was no more than a senior Colonel in the Army then. It should never have resulted in a conversation, but Fernandes had a penchant for speaking with the rank and file of the armed forces and gleaning for himself the state of preparedness and morale through such discussions. I had loathed and admired him at different times. His wayward and revolutionary ways in the 70s never appealed to my strict military upbringing through which I imposed on myself discipline and implicit obedience to authority.
However, in later years as he emerged as a more mature politician and leader, one kept hearing better things. This meeting at the lounge was at the early part of his tenure as defence minister. Fernandes had just been to the Siachen glacier and it was beginning to fascinate him; I had commanded my unit at the glacier and was only too keen to share my knowledge. He seemed fascinated by things such as the Indian Army’s deployment at the Saltoro ridge, much against his own perception and that of the common people of India that our army only held the glacier at the lower heights.
I told him of the deployment at razor sharp peaks, the intense cold, how kerosene oil was the lifeline, the manner in which helicopters took only a single jerrican of kerosene in the first sortie to a higher post when its own aviation fuel was filled to the brim, and complained a bit about the poor allowances as compensation. I told him of snow scooters and how important these were for the effort to collect the parachuted oil barrels at the flat stretches. I related the story of how the body of a Gurkha soldier could not be taken off the glacier for almost a fortnight because mortal remains of the dead were the last priority for evacuation.
He was a keen listener and I could see he absorbed it all and even noted one or two issues in a small diary. Later, Fernandes was to set a record with 18 visits to the Siachen glacier in his tenure as defence minister. He had little time for ceremony, but in each visit many officers related how he enquired about the rectification of issues raised in previous visits. Learning that some spares for snow scooters had not been delivered in the priority desired, he decided to send bureaucrats to go and experience the conditions for themselves before refusing anything the army demanded. I think the construction of the oil pipeline at the Northern Siachen glacier was a work of his time.
I did not witness any generic briefings given to him at Delhi; only the specific ones dealing with the Kargil intrusions, but those who did recalled his inquisitiveness and ability to spot the core issues. He appeared to have an innovative mindset and was known for the respect he carried for men in uniform. Of course, he never admitted that the Kargil intrusions were any kind of intelligence failure perhaps because it was something that went with his political responsibilities.
One can always question his wisdom and unwillingness to tolerate dissent from the unfortunate episode of the sacking of a very senior officer regarding a difference of opinion about the appointment of another senior officer. Post Kargil, Fernandes was a member of the group of ministers (GoM) set up to comprehensively review the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) report drafted under the supervision of K Subramaniam. The implementation of the various recommendations of the task forces the GoM set up remains a contentious issue. Some recommendations are discussed to this day more for their non-implementation; especially the integration of the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the appointment of a Chief of the Defence Staff and the setting up of a National Defence University (NDU).
Two alleged scandals besmirched Fernandes’ reputation to a great extent. The first was the so-called Coffingate which had allegations of overpricing of funeral caskets purchased from the US; it was never proven. The second was the infamous Tehelka scandal which revealed the murky nature of procurements in the Indian security system and forced Fernandes to hand over his resignation to then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Although he returned to the same office after six months, the ghosts of Tehelka could not be easily exorcised from his persona and allegations continued to cling due to differences in his own Samata party, a constituent of the NDA-I.
Vajpayee and his political advisers calculated that Fernandes' re-induction was worth more than the storm of protests it would trigger not only from the Congress-led Opposition, but also within the BJP. Yet, one cannot forget that it was Fernandes who pushed the fast-track acquisition process for the purchase of a large number of defence-related hardware immediately after Kargil. Among these were the thermal imagers which were later to become the most crucial equipment for effective conduct of counter-infiltration operations. Most would also be unaware that the Rs 1,100 crore fencing at the Line of Control (LoC) was approved and executed — to a major extent — during the tenure of Fernandes.
The fence went on to become a force multiplier and succeeded in reducing infiltration across the LoC. It was not easy making available the money so quickly and then executing the task on a war footing. His full confidence in the military hierarchy in a period when Jammu and Kashmir was being subjected to resurgence of intense violence helped in the conduct of counter-terror operations.
Two other issues relating to Fernandes are worth mentioning. First, there is often an accusation that ideologically, he changed colour for the sake of office. An ardent opponent of military nuclearisation when the prime minister Indira Gandhi conducted the first Pokhran test, Fernandes later chose to support nuclear tests conducted by the NDA government. However, this can always be dismissed under changing perceptions that occur with reality of power.
The second was the massive mobilisation under his watch in 2001-02 in an operation codenamed Operation Parakram. The Indian Army faced a large number of non-operational casualties, especially in mine laying and lifting, an issue never really discussed. However, again this could always be passed off as collective responsibility and not constituting the task of just the defence minister.
Clearly Fernandes’ tenure as defence minister was among the most eventful in India’s history notwithstanding the fact that a full-scale war was never fought under his watch. However, the Indian Armed Forces and especially the leadership appeared reasonably satisfied with his stewardship of the Ministry of Defence, although civil-military relations remained an ever-present problem. What Fernandes probably brought most to the office of defence minister was a strategic sense, sharpness of mind and willingness to exert his political control rather than leave the security of India in bureaucratic hands.
Rest in peace, George Fernandes. You did your bit and did it well.
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