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The giant killer who Indianised the corporates

Today we do not have many politicians known outside the state of their origin or around Delhi. ‘National’ leaders have been thrown up rather rarely. In this context George Fernandes, enjoying a pan India reputation is a great contrast.

Hailing from Mangaluru, shifting to Mumbai at the age of 19 to be trained as a Catholic priest George Fernandes evolved as a powerful trade union leader. Masterminding (in 1974), the most extensive railway strike, defeating the powerful Congress leader S K Patil in the Lok Sabha elections, he moved to Bihar and emerged as a powerhouse. We do not have many parallels of such an evolved politician.
In March 1977, soon after the Janata government assumed power, I presented several leaders of the Janata party at the Madras Press Club. These included P Ramachandran, George Fernandes, L K Advani, Piloo Modi, Subramanian Swamy and later Prime Minister Morarji Desai. The simplicity and humility of Fernandes belied his firm resolve to bring about structural changes in corporate India. A week after the meeting at the Press Club I met these ministers at the Economic Editors Conference in New Delhi. The first signs of the change were in evidence: V Krishnamurthy, who headed BHEL with distinction, was shifted as the Secretary, Department of Heavy Industry.
Soon Fernandes mandated the dilution of foreign equity investments to 40 per cent of capital. Except for IBM and Coca Cola, all other foreign companies complied. This meant the Indianisation of the management. I cite the transformation at Ashok Leyland for depicting the change: from the lion’s share of shareholding by the British, this was brought down. Ram Shahaney, who earned the reputation for turning around Jessop & Company, Kolkata, assumed charge as the chief executive. The conservative company that was making a modest growth in the previous three decades embarked on dramatic expansion. The fire-brand trade union leader Fernandes triggered this revolutionary change so quietly and seamlessly!

Stellar Contributions…

Another stellar contribution of Fernandes related to the first significant expansion of the Indian railway network. The Konkan Railway built along the west coast linking Thiruvananthapuram with Mumbai was not merely an engineering marvel but also a much-needed one. Look at the geography: someone travelling from Kochi to Mumbai had to move all the way towards the east coast to Arakkonam near Chennai and again go towards Mumbai on the west coast entailing long hours of journey and cost. The elegant and speed of travel along the scenic west coast is among the stellar contributions of Fernandes.
I met Fernandes again during 1989-90 when he was the Railway Minister in the VP Singh government. I remember his reference to the very poor progress made by the Indian Railway in expanding the rail network handed by the British in 1947. He referred to the annual additions of less than 200 km as grossly inadequate and to the massive changes that would be brought about by providing the convenience of a railway. He outlined impressive plans to extend the railway network to far off regions like Jammu & Kashmir. Sadly, his tenure as Railway Minister was short.
This fire-brand socialist was Minister of Defence in the Vajpayee government during 1998-2001, when he oversaw the Pokhran nuclear tests and the Kargil war. For the first time, the Minister of Defence was frequently visiting Siachen and other high altitude installations.
Sadly, a Tehelka report exposing corruption in defence purchase caused his resignation in March 2001. Though he got a clean chit later, it more or less ended his political career. He passed away on 29 January after a prolonged illness. In his death, India lost one of the most colourful, honest and brilliant national leaders with a stellar record of service. – SV

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