As George Fernandes struggles on with multiple late-life ailments, a 2009 report on his last, and pitifully poignant, election bid from Muzaffarpur in Bihar
He won a thunderous victory here thirty two years ago from behind the bars of Indira Gandhi’s jailhouse. He is whimpering to a sad end today behind the doors of his air-conditioned labyrinth. George Fernandes, gloried rebel of yore, lies chained in superannuated vainglory at the altar of his finest hour and nobody’s even noticing.
In 1977, he emblazoned Muzaffarpur on the national map with a searing slap to the Emergency. His posters — a manacled George, famed forelocks gnashing at the iron fencing — won him the seat, he didn’t even need to be here.
Today, nobody knows his address and everybody’s saying he needn’t be here. “Poor man, can’t even speak or stand,” says the doorman at the Meenakshi International Hotel, risen bang opposite the Muzaffarpur Railway Station, scene of many a rousing reception to George, “Pata nahin kya soojha.” (Don’t know what made him do this.)
The first floor lobby is abustle — the balustrades leading up heaped with marigolds, the stairs a scurry of people running up and down, the reception area itself rippling with excitement and squadrons of pellet-size mosquitoes. Can’t get a word in at the front desk, can’t find a seat to rest the exhaustions of the long and shoddy road from Bettiah. But none of that is about George Fernandes. It’s the onset of “lagan” — the wedding season — and the palaver is over brides and grooms and their respective parties; one set’s vacating, their tidings done, another’s waiting to move in. “Jaarje? Jaarje kaun?” asks the man across the reception when the enquiry about George finally gets through, “Kaun barat party mein hain sir?” (Which wedding party is he from sir?)
You’d want to laugh at the unwitting wit of the liveried desk clerk, still diligently poring over his guest register. He’s wrong; George is a hotel guest, though probably not registered as occupant of Suite 105. But he’s also right; ‘Jaarje’ doesn’t ring an instant bell here anymore. Forget which barat party, just ask George which party and he won’t have an answer. The JD(U), of which he was founder president (and is he still Patron?), said no to his last wish, politely, then firmly — you’re too ill to contest the Lok Sabha, Georgesaheb, we’ll give you an easy entry into the Rajya Sabha, the first seat available.
Just being considerate, the JD(U) argues; just being cruel, George’s shrunken circle of backers complain. “This man single-handedly birthed this party,” says Shambhu Shrivastav, one-time JD(U) spokesman and currently manager of George’s campaign, “How can you deny such a tall leader his last wish? This is a black conspiracy. He is a little ill, but who does not fall ill once in a while?” Nonsense, reckons current JD(U) spokesman and Nitish Kumar loyalist, Shivanand Tiwary. “Georgesaheb is very very sick, some say it is Alzhimer’s. He cannot comprehend, he cannot speak, he does not know what is going on. There is merely a coterie trying to milk whatever they can from his name, it is shameless and callous what they are putting him through.”
By many accounts, the report on George’s health is dire. When George arrived in Patna for his nomination a couple of weeks ago, it was apparent to all he wasn’t himself. Carried into a waiting car, he tapped his driver’s shoulder and mumbled something about why there was such commotion around. The driver told him it was his reception committee; George looked on blankly. “He can’t recognise people anymore,” said a senior bureaucrat who was a close aide during George’s days as defence minister, “He just looked at me and turned, even though I repeatedly told him my name, he does not have his senses anymore.”
Is George being hustled into this contest unknown to himself? Shambhu Shrivastav is irate he’s even been asked that. “What do you mean? He is not a child, he is one of our greatest politicians, he has a mind of his own. Sure he has a speaking problem, but he is fit for this and absolutely ahead in the race, Muzaffarpur mein Georgesaheb nahin jeetenge to kaun jeetega?” (If George won’t win in Muzaffarpur, who will?)
In the same breath, though, Shrivastav complains about the “desperate measures” Nitish Kumar and the JD(U) are taking to somehow see George defeated. “They have given the ticket to (Jainarain) Nishad and put up a dummy as independent only to cut votes away, they want to ensure the victory of the LJP candidate just in order to slight Georgesaheb in his last battle.”
To the LJP candidate — retired college teacher Bhagwan Sahni who lost to George by a mere 9000 votes the last time — George is the key “votekatua” (vote-cutter) of this election, not the others. “He’ll get enough in the name of sentiment and sympathy,” Sahni’s campaign managers tell you happily, “enough to ensure our victory.”
But Shrivastav lumbers on in great earnest, marshalling his forces from a sofa in the frontroom of Suite 105. George himself is behind the closed bedroom door, resting. “It’s hot,” Shrivastav says, “Even I could do with some rest, Georgesaheb to Georgesaheb hain. He’s just finished a road-show.”
Tomorrow’s itinerary is getting listed on his notepad — Bochahan, Musafirpur, Sultannagar, Sarai, Bochahan Bazar… Shrivastav is also at two cellphones consistently, trying his best to goad the old George network into life. No one’s turning up to help, or only a few are; there was a time George was trailed by a sea wherever he went in this vast and mostly rural north Bihar constituency; today a trickle has to be coaxed.
“Forget the netas, they’re all opportunists,” Shrivastav grumbles at the end of another vain telephone conversation, “It is the people who count and Georgesaheb still has a place in their hearts, they are the ones who have always seen him through. And that was evident on the road-show.”
What they call George’s road-show is made up of a motley handful of cars mounted with his allotted symbol — a basket. George sits at the back of the lead car — “windows rolled down so people can see him,” one of his aids pertinently adds — and looks out at the world passing by. “He cannot speak because of that accident he had,” the aide explains, as if to say that shouldn’t matter, “but he can see and people can see him.”
One of their objectives, surely, will be to ensure the people don’t see too much of George; the more they get a sense of George’s failing health and comprehension, the more they’ll be deterred from voting him. Premji Lal, who was among the frenzied Muzaffarpur youth that built up the storm for George in 1977, believes the message has already spread and sunk. “Everybody knows he is not physically able now, why is he calling this miserable end upon himself? There is a time and place for everything.” Premji is now with the LJP’s Sahni, but part of him can’t help shedding a wasted tear over the denouement his one-time hero is headed to. “Dukhad, dukhad.” (It’s painful). And probably as poignant at the symbol George carries around — not many disagree his campaign is a basket case. Dukhad.