After battling prolonged illness, former defence minister George Fernandes died in New Delhi today. He was 88. Fernandes, born in south Karnataka, started his political career in Mumbai as a trade union leader. Among other languages, he spoke Marathi fluently. The charismatic leader became famous as a giant killer when he defeated Congress veteran SK Patil in the latter's bastion in Mumbai in the 1967 Lok Sabha election. Fernandes is said to have inspired the character of union leader D'Casta in Arun Sadhu's Marathi novel "Mumbai Dinank". The character also featured in the subsequent Jabbar Patel-directed film "Simhasan".
In 2003, Fernandes famously flew Sukhoi fighter plane in Pune. A month later, in June, he again undertook a MiG-21 sortie at a time when the fighter planes were dubbed as 'flying coffins.' After the sortie, Fernandes had said that there were "attempts to degrade these fighters and I want to dispel apprehensions about its safety."
The defence minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, Fernandes was under scanner for the 'coffin scam'. There were allegations that poor quality aluminium caskets were bought from the US at 'exorbitant rates' to transport bodies of Kargil war heroes.
But later, his name didn't figure in the CBI chargesheet. While many supporters called it a clean chit, Fernandes felt otherwise. "I needed no 'clean chit' from the CBI to know that the aluminium casket purchase issue had never even come to my table during my tenure as Defence Minister let alone my drinking the blood of martyrs, as the Congress accused me of doing," the JD(U) leader had said soon after the probe agency filed the chargesheet.
In August 2009, the CBI filed the chargesheet in the case, which named two retired Army officials and one serving officer but did not name the former minister. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among the first leaders to condole the ex-minister's death. In a series of tweets, Modi called Fernandes as 'frank and fearless.'
"George Sahab represented the best of India's political leadership. Frank and fearless, forthright and farsighted, he made a valuable contribution to our country. He was among the most effective voices for the rights of the poor and marginalised. Saddened by his passing away," PM Modi said in a tweet.
"When we think of Mr George Fernandes, we remember most notably the fiery trade union leader who fought for justice, the leader who could humble the mightiest of politicians at the hustings, a visionary Railway Minister and a great Defence Minister who made India safe and strong," the Prime Minister said.
"During his long years in public life, George Sahab never deviated from his political ideology. He resisted the Emergency tooth and nail. His simplicity and humility were noteworthy. My thoughts are with his family, friends and lakhs of people grieving. May his soul rest in peace," he added.