Ex-Defence Minister George Fernandes no more

New Delhi: Former Defence Minister George Fernandes died here on Tuesday after prolonged illness. He was 88.

Fernandes was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Recently, he contracted swine flu, his family sources said.

Fernandes, a long-time socialist, rose to political prominence when he led the Bombay Taxi Unions Association and defeated “uncrowned king of Bombay” S.K. Patil, a Congress heavy-weight in the 1967 general election.

A fire-brand and hardworking Fernandes, only 37 then, campaigned tirelessly, covering large swathes of the constituency with his workers. And when the results were declared, he unseated the ‘king’ with 48.5 per cent of the votes.

Fernandes later joined the Janata Dal. He served as Railways Minister in the V.P. Singh government from 1989 to 1990. He was instrumental in setting up the Konkan Railway project, connecting Mangalore and Bombay.

In 1994, Fernandes formed the Samata Party, which later allied with the Bharatiya Janata Party. He was appointed convenor of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and served as the Defence Minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government for two terms, between 1998 and 2004.

His term was eventful as it witnessed the Kargil war and Pokhran test.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi condoled the demise of Fernandes, saying he was frank and fearless and never deviated from his ideology.

In a series of tweets, he said, “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,” he said.

Modi said, “When we think of 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”.

(With agency inputs)