Surprise is what George Fernandes is all about. The maverick socialist, with several causes to uphold, was expected to remain outside the Bharatiya Janata party-led coalition ministry when Atal Behari Vajpayee was busy forming a government out of the chaos created by a fractured mandate. Suddenly, Fernandes decided to give government another try.
Vajpayee was hard put to find a “suitable berth” for the man who, as industry minister in the first Janata government (in which they were cabinet colleagues), threw Coca Cola out of India in 1978. And could have been a trifle worried too. But while the two stormy ladies, Jayalalitha of Tamil Nadu and Mamata Banerjee of Bengal stayed out of the government, George Fernandes became India´s defence minister. And within a week, he had created a major controversy.
On a tour of the northeast states of India immediately after taking charge, Fernandes told the BBC that China was a much greater threat to India than Pakistan. Many, like India´s leading columnist Inder Malhotra, supported Fernandes for “calling a spade a spade”. Others, for whom Pakistan is cause for paranoia, were critical. And this included leaders of the bjp, with whom Fernandes´ Samata party is allied.
But Fernandes was far from finished.
Within a few days, he was back at China-bashing, this time alleging that the Chinese had illegally constructed a helipad in Indian territory, in the frontier state of Arunachal Pradesh. This time, Beijing´s response was furious. Vajpayee buckled under pressure, called Fernandes over and asked him “not to provoke the Chinese”. Pakistan´s response was interesting. Gohar Ayub Khan, the foreign minister said that whatever Fernandes might have said, India was in no position to take on China and that all her military efforts were, in reality, focused on Pakistan. Whatever the truth of the matter, Fernandes has managed to trigger off a fresh debate on “threat identification” in India´s defence establishment.
Apart from China, Fernandes is bound to upset Burma´s ruling military junta as well. His official residence in New Delhi – 3, Krishna Menon Marg — remains the India office of the All Burma Federation of Students Union, which spearheaded the pro-democracy upsurge in Burma during 1987-88 before a fresh coup snuffed out the movement. Burmese diplomats in India have said they were upset that the bjp government could not find anyone other than Fernandes to be the defence minister. They say his “anti-Yangon bias will definitely affect relations between India and Burma.”
After taking over as minister, Fernandes has also stirred a hornet´s nest within the defence establishment — he wants to withdraw the army from counter-insurgency operations and train it for meeting the external threat. He wants the Armed Forces Special Powers Act withdrawn to project a more humane face for India´s over-stretched, over-worked army and to restore the democratic process in areas the army has been out of too long.
Why did a man as desperate as Vajpayee to avoid controversies, to keep the neighbours including China happy, and to keep foreign investments flowing, give such a high-profile ministry to Fernandes? Here is a man, after all, attached to his very non-mainstream causes – besides bringing democracy to Burma and Bhutan and keeping multinationals out of India (he might actually be a bigger proponent of swadeshi than the BJP, which has espoused it as its policy), he is also for freedom for Tibet and espouses several other causes. Obviously, it was the incredible compulsions of coalition politics which forced the BJP to accept Fernandes in the cabinet. They just had no choice.
Fernandes´s Samata Party is one of the many parties without whose support the BJP government will collapse. It is also powerful in Bihar, a state where the BJP wants to increase its influence and wrest political control from the hands of Laloo Prasad Yadav. Since Yadav now supports the Congress, BJP´s major challenger at the Centre, it is all the more important for the bjp to build its base in Bihar.
Fernandes also has interesting connections in the Indian Northeast, and the BJP wants to utilise these to bring some of the region´s separatist groups to the table for negotiations. Fernandes is already in touch with the outlawed National Democratic Front of Bodoland; during his sojourn in Guwahati, Assam´s capital, he is reported to have spoken to the Bodo rebel chief, Ranjan Daimary. That may be another reason why Vajpayee will keep Fernandes in his team: to secure a breakthrough in the Northeast.
But Vajpayee knows better than anyone else that to do any kind of mainstream politics, Fernandes will have to be kept under control. Most previous coalition ministries, in which Fernandes served as minister, realised his worth in pushing things through, but feared his potential for controversies. Vajpayee´s feelings about his maverick ally are likely to be no different.