An Indian leader who wanted to ‘be reborn as a Vietnamese’

By Hari Chathrattil   January 29, 2019 | 08:56 pm PT
An Indian leader who wanted to ‘be reborn as a Vietnamese’
Former Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes speaks at a conference. Photo by Reuters/File
Former Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes died on Tuesday.

On the occasion, as tributes poured in from all parts of the political spectrum, one newspaper carried an article headlined: "Why George Fernandes once said 'would like to be reborn as a Vietnamese'."

The exact quote is: "If there is a rebirth, I would like to be reborn as a Vietnamese;" such was his admiration for the people of this country. He had made the statement following his visit to Vietnam as the Defense Minister of India.

I had the opportunity to meet him then.

His humility and absolute openness in talking to people was striking and very rare, because it was authentic, not a practiced politician’s smooth talk that I have come across frequently.

When I asked him about specifics of the agreement reached in his talks with Vietnamese authorities, he quickly asked the very senior bureaucrat with him to make a copy and give it to me. I could see that the bureaucrat was not happy at all with this request, but he had no choice. This readiness to share information also set him apart immediately from other Indian politicians and leaders.

"Can we talk sometime tomorrow, I really want to watch this water puppet show tonight," he told me. The simplicity with which he said it remains fresh in my mind to this day.

This was not the George Fernandes I had in mind before I met him in person, because he was usually referred to as a "fiery socialist" or a "firebrand union leader." I had first "encountered" him as a child, because a railway sector strike that he led had delayed a train my family had to take by more than 10 hours.

I was livid and thrilled at the same time, livid because I heard adults complain about troublesome labor union leaders, and thrilled because it was new experience, sitting in a small railway station for hours together, being taken to a local tea shop for hot tea late in the night and having the most soulful experience of listening to Kathakali (a classical dance from the south Indian state of Kerala) songs on the tea shop’s radio.

George Fernandes next came into my consciousness at a time of a personal political awakening that happened around high school/undergrad time.

The then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had declared an Emergency with attendant draconian measures.

I remember the resentment as small businesses like my family restaurant were squeezed dry by impractical rules. A government inspector could come into the restaurant at any time, order a dish and weigh it to see if met the minimum requirements, and levy a fine on the spot.

People seethed with anger and I knew then that the people in the north of the country were having it much worse than those of us in the south. The forced sterilization of young men remains a stark, dark memory.

George Fernandes became a hero then, as someone with the guts to resist Emergency rule.

After the Emergency was lifted and a united opposition swept to power in a historic election, he became the industry minister and did something radical.

He threw Coca Cola and IBM out of India, an action that is talked about still. I cannot imagine anyone else with the courage for doing this, whatever the merits or demerits of the action.

Whatever his detractors said and will say about him in the future, there is no doubt that he was a man who was sincere in working for the downtrodden, especially low paid workers.

When he talked to me in Hanoi, his curiosity about contemporary Vietnam was genuine.

As I detailed Vietnam’s accomplishments, especially in agriculture, going from a net importer of rice to a leading exporter in the world of rice, coffee and other produce, he remarked on how Indians should learn from the Vietnamese work ethos. "We should really learn from them," he said.

As with everything else, his admiration for the Vietnamese people in recovering from the consequences of war and the unjust embargo imposed on it for decades was genuine.

There are many things that can, and will be written about George Fernandes, good and bad and in-between.

However, there is no denying his prominent place in India’s history, his work as a union leader, his role in ushering in an era of coalition politics in the country and so on.

Through all this, for me, the man’s fundamental simplicity, honesty and genuineness will stand out.

I know he had initially aspired to become a priest and chucked it because he found the church a bastion of hypocrisy.

In the end, it did not matter, because George Fernandes had achieved sainthood.

I hope his death becomes an occasion to remember the kind of grassroots work he did and the impact he had.

I have to disagree with him on one thing, though.

If there is rebirth, I would like him to be reborn, not as a Vietnamese, as he wished, but as an Indian again. The country needs people like him, now more than ever.

*Hari Chathrattil is an Indian working in Hanoi. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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