Oscar Fernandes passes away: The Gandhi family’s Congressman for all seasons

Oscar Fernandes, Gandhi family loyalist, Rajya Sabha MP and Congress leader from Karnataka who died on Monday after slipping into a coma in July following a head injury, was a quiet firefighter and a hard bargainer.
Oscar Fernandes
Oscar Fernandes
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In July 2008, when the UPA government won the confidence motion on the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal by a margin of 19 votes, two of those votes came from BJP MPs from Karnataka. Defying the BJP whip, Manorama Madhwaraj abstained from voting while HT Sangliana voted in favour of the deal. The backroom exercise for ensuring these two votes from the BJP MPs was done by Oscar Fernandes, which included the minute details of flying them to New Delhi and getting an audience with Congress President Sonia Gandhi.

Gandhi family loyalist, Rajya Sabha MP and Congress leader from Karnataka Oscar, who died on Monday, September 13 after slipping into a coma following a head injury on July 19, was a quiet firefighter and a hard bargainer. Affectionately called Brother Oscar, he was one of the few gentlemen politicians. Sonia inherited him from former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s team who had three Parliamentary secretaries – Arun Singh, Ahmed Patel and Oscar.

Oscar’s debut entry into the Lok Sabha from Udupi in 1980 was by accident. The Charan Singh government had collapsed and elections were declared. The Congress (I) was looking for a candidate from Udupi to take on industrialist TA Pai, who was the Congress (Urs), breakaway faction of the Congress, nominee. It was then that former MLA U Sabhapathy and Manorama Madhwaraj along with local Congress members decided to push Oscar’s candidature before then former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Oscar had left his job in the Life Insurance Corporation after getting elected to Udupi town municipality council and was running a plastic company for his livelihood, which went into a loss. When Indira visited Chikkodi, the Congress leaders introduced Oscar to her as the probable candidate for the Udupi seat. Indira is supposed to have asked Oscar: “Can you take on industrialist Pai?” to which he had replied, “Yes, Ma’am.” The rest is history, as Oscar won the seat and became one of Sonia’s trusted lieutenants.

From the early 1980s Oscar was one of the trusted persons in the Gandhi family – the quiet firefighter whom Sonia relied upon for his negotiating skills. According to Congress sources, when the Congress high command appointed Oscar as a mediator to hold talks with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim, he gave his own touch to the negotiations. He would begin the meetings with prayers or take out his mouth organ and play the ‘happy birthday’ tune to Naga rebel leader T Muivah. “It was his negotiation skills that landed him the labour portfolio. After he took charge, the lights at the Shram Shakti Bhavan in New Delhi would seldom go off till well past midnight,” they added.

A senior Congressman from Karnataka said apart from being the eyes and ears of the Gandhi family, his simplicity and honesty sometimes would cause discomfiture to some partymen. “During elections the Congress high command would send some funds by helicopters to help the state units here. The money would be given to Oscar who used to keep an account of every penny spent, and the unspent amount he would return to the AICC,” the leader recalled.

His simplicity was such that even when holding prime positions in the Congress, party sources said, Oscar had this practice of making his own meals. “He would make the Mangaluru ganji (porridge) and then leave for the AICC headquarters in New Delhi,” they added. In later years, apart from playing the mouth organ, he learnt Kuchipudi dance.

One of the few Congressmen to have seen the highs and lows of the party’s fortunes, when it came to sharing confidences he was a hard nut to crack. A close confidant of his said that at times he would open up and recall his association with the Gandhi family and his deep attachment to Rajiv Gandhi.

According to the confidant, Rajiv Gandhi as AICC general secretary had to rush to Jammu and Kashmir and he wanted Oscar, the party joint secretary, to accompany him. “Oscar packed his belongings, but had not included any warm clothes for the winter. When Rajiv Gandhi noticed this, he got one of his friends to get woollen clothes for Oscar before they started on the journey. Oscar used to frequently share this incident with some of us,” he said.

Naheed Ataulla is a journalist who has covered Karnataka politics for over two decades, and is a former Political Editor of The Times of India. Views expressed are the author’s own.

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