September 17, 2021
Oscar Fernandes, who passed away on September 13, 2021 in Mangaluru had close proximity to Gandhi family, right from the days of late Indira Gandhi. Often he was compared to the other Fernandes, the firebrand George who ran away from a Seminary and became a politician. George was relatively away from the Roman Catholic Church and its clergy, while Oscar was the darling of the Catholic Church and had good rapport with Catholic priests, in particular the Jesuits. I have seen myself whenever he went to attend Sunday Mass at the Retreat House in the city, a few seats were reserved by the priests for his family although this gesture was against the teachings of the Church.
Otherwise, Oscar was widely recognized as the ‘gentleman politician’, a low profile politician, not very ambitious or an opportunist who was mostly seen inaugurating small time buildings or boutiques in and around Udupi his birthplace, or within Mangaluru city where he resided.
He was a simple person, without much pretension and obliged every person for a photograph or a selfie with him. He also never turned down appeals for interviews for media although in the later years the media kept him away from the mainstream politics. However, as I said before being a loyal senior Congress member he was close to the corridors of power in New Delhi. His allegiance both to Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi was quite well-known but it was non-political in nature and he was quite neutral on many issues as explained by him on many occasions. Hence, Mrs Sonia Gandhi during many occasions had appointed him as the ‘election officer’ during inter-party elections. He was said to be a active family person who with his wife, Blossom accompanied Mrs Sonia Gandhi whenever she chose to attend a Sunday mass at the Cathedral in the capital. He never used his card being a Roman Catholic to get a place in the Union Cabinet, although the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his term appointed him as the minister in the small time ministries such as Roads and Highways, Labour, Statistics and Program Implementation, and such.
Twenty years ago, when we launched a website called ‘Daijidubai’ in Dubai, U.A.E. and went to ask for his interview, (he was in Dubai on a private visit) he obliged by agreeing to meet us at 12.30 in the night. The interview took place in a show off Dubai Creek whilst a party was going on in full stream. Oscar pleasantly gave answers to our questions in spite of his wife Blossom objecting to our interview being carried out midst of a celebration. “politicians and journalists have no time frame,” he told his wife. “We need each other, wherever we go.”
When I met him once for another interview for a Dubai daily, he told me, “I never wanted to be a politician, in fact my focus was to become a doctor, but the fate destined otherwise. We twelve children were brought up in astute poverty, had no means to education hence I had to stop my education after my 10th standard so that I could allow my sister to continue her education…” There were tears in his eyes.
He had many sad stories to narrate, mostly how his poor family sustained in those days and had to swim against strong tides. His father, Rocky Fernandes, was the headmaster in a government school had who raised a huge family with a meagre income. This prompted the young Oscar to join as a clerk in LIC, the only national company in those days. Simultaneously, he worked as a progressive farmer tilling the fields and bagging the awards in agricultural field. Soon he was elected as the municipal councillor at the behest of his friends and acquaintance.
Around 1980, the Indira Congress was on the political cross roads in Karnataka as the ardent supporter of Mrs Indira Gandhi, D. Devaraj Urs, broke ties with the party and formed his own political outfit. At this juncture, B. Janardhan Poojary who was at the threshold of the party from the Coastal region and was considered to be close to Mrs Gandhi strongly recommended a seat for a young Oscar to fight the election against the stalwart T.A. Pai who had by then sided with Urs. Thus Oscar won the prestigious seat as a member of parliament defeating his mentor T.A. Pai.
It was ironic that in 1977 parliamentary elections, Oscar Fernandes served as T A Pai’s election agent. Pai, without doubt, was a prominent politician from the region. He was the scion of Manipal business family and Urs on the other hand was equally a popular chief minister who had religiously slogged to implement ‘20 point programme’ during the Emergency period. Further he had implemented the “Land Reforms Act’ in letter and spirit. This had given the Congress party a distinct place in the Indian political history. But in the political arena both Urs and Pai had to bite the dust. T A Pai was defeated by his own disciple Oscar with a handsome margin and was called the ‘giant killer,” a name given previously given to George Fernandes, many years ago for defeating S.K.Patil, the stalwart of Congress party in Bombay. Later Oscar kept on repeating his performance by winning the parliamentary seat during five successive terms.
Oscar who lost his seat in 1998 elections, did not gather courage to face the voters again through direct election. Instead he preferred to work for the Congress party and remained in the good books of the Gandhi family. In turn he he was nominated for Rajya Sabha seat for two terms. At the time of his passing away, he was a sitting M.P. of Rajya Sabha.
In the later years, however, Oscar Fernandes remained as a low profile politician out of the glare of media. Being a Catholic member of parliament, it is alleged that he did hardly anything for his minority community, however he was widely respected by non-Christians who called him as ‘Ocaranna’ (Elder-brother Oscar). This was possibly because of his close ties with the Pejawara Seer Shri Vishwesha Teertha Swamiji of Udupi Krishna Mutt.
I still remember during my college days, when Oscar Fernandes was given civic reception upon his election to the parliament, Pejawar Shri who had presided over the program blessed him saying in Kannada, “Oscar Bhaskarananthe belagali.” (May Oscar shine like Bhaskar. A satellite by the name ‘Bhaskar’ was built by ISRO in that year and was launched just a few days prior to the felicitation ceremony.)
Oscar Fernandes’ end came, quite unexpectedly, just the same way he had his entry into politics. Sometime in July 2021, he was hospitalized following a fall during his routine physical exercise at his residence. He had an internal brain injury that could not be healed in spite of a surgery. He breathed his last on Monday, September 13, 2021, aged 80 years leaving behind his wife Blossom and two children. After completing all religious rites at his birthplace Udupi and Mangaluru his mortal remains were taken to Bengaluru for party veneration. He was interred on Thursday September 16, 2021 at St Patrick Church in Bengaluru with full national respects.