INDIA’S former defence minister George Fernandes, 88, passed away in Delhi today (29) after a prolonged illness.
Fernandes was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, which had forced him out of the public eye for several years, and had recently contracted swine flu, his long time associate, Jaya Jaitly, said.
He joined prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s federal government in 1998 and 1999, when Fernandes was appointed the defence minister. It was on his watch that India fought the Kargil war against Pakistan in 1999. It was also during his tenure that India conducted the nuclear test at Pokhran, Rajasthan, in 1998.
Fernandes, born to a Christian family in the southern Indian coastal city of Mangaluru in Karnataka, shot to fame as a trade union leader in Mumbai in the early 1970s.
He organised a railways strike in 1974 that brought the country to a standstill. He became the railways minister in 1989 under VP Singh’s National Front coalition government, comprising mostly left leaning parties.
Fernandes was also the minister for industry under the Janata Party government in 1977. He was at loggerheads with industrialists and slapped foreign exchange violation charges against Coca-Cola and IBM, which forced them to shut down their operations and quit India.
Fernandes stepped away from frontline politics after unsuccessfully fighting the 2009 parliamentary elections, ending a political career that began with him in 1967 general elections to India’s lower house of parliament.
He subsequently represented Muzzafarpur and Nalanda constituencies in India’s northern state of Bihar, and was also a upper house member in 2009-2010.