I met George for the first time when I called on him in his Delhi office with Karpoori Thakur, chief minister of Bihar. I was Karpoori’s principal secretary then. George and Karpoori were both socialists and were very close to each other. I had already heard a great deal about George and his exploits, and meeting him in person was therefore memorable. Years later, I left civil service to join politics and, as chance would have it, I joined the Janata Party, of which George was a leader. I remember well the day I addressed my first public meeting with George.
We became friends pretty soon and worked closely together during the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. The same year, the disastrous Lok Sabha elections happened, where every major leader of the opposition lost. George was no exception. But within two years, came the by-election of the Banka parliamentary constituency in Bihar. George decided to contest from there. Banka was a socialist stronghold. The great socialist leader Madhu Limaye had won this seat in 1977. George wanted me to become his election agent for this bypoll and also his campaign manager. I accepted this assignment with great pleasure, though some people told me that as the general secretary of the party, it was perhaps a little below my status.
I camped in Banka for the duration of the election, staying with George and looking after the campaign. He was contesting against the chief minister’s wife. The rest could be easily imagined. George worked very hard in this election, leaving his place early in the morning and returning late at night. He would address numerous meetings during this time and would never feel tired. I too tried to keep pace. His election team from Bombay meticulously planned the polling booth arrangements and we did everything we could to give a good fight. But that is where it ended. We lost the election to the CM’s wife.
For George, personal relationships mattered more than party rules. He’d campaign for friends contesting against his own party without hesitation.
George was in the forefront of the campaign to promote V.P. Singh when the latter resigned from Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet and joined the ranks of the opposition. When V.P. Singh formed his government, George became the railway minister. The trade union leader of the railway employees was now their minister. George was neither an obedient nor a disciplined party worker. For him, personal relationships mattered more than the rules of the party. So he had no hesitation in campaigning for friends who might be contesting against the candidate of his own party. Those who knew this aspect of George’s character, like Chandra Shekhar, just let it pass.
We worked together again when we became ministers in the Vajpayee government. As defence minister, George was extremely popular with the armed forces and set a record of sorts by visiting Siachen more number of times that any other defence minister. He cared for the soldier, most of all. George was a fighter. He fought the establishment as a trade union leader; he fought as a political leader in the opposition; he even fought the establishment as a minister. He was the eternal rebel for whom the people came first and who would not put up with any injustice.
George was a powerful orator too. Even in Parliament, his presence could not be ignored by friends and foes alike. You either loved him or hated him, but you could never ignore him. Above all, George was one of the finest human beings I have known. Despite the ups and downs in his political career, he never let down his friends.