Barak deal case closed, but George Fernandes can’t celebrate

New Delhi, Dec.25: The report published today that the CBI has closed its investigation into the kickback case related to the India-Israel Barak Missile deal, which had indicted former defence minister George Fernandes, the them Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Sushil Kumar and Fernandes’ party associate Jaya Jaitley, thanx to sting carried out by the Tehelka periodical, brought to my mind how Fernandes spent the last week of December when he was in office.

Every year end, Fernandes use to travel to the farthest army outposts in Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and in Bhuj, Gujarat, and mingle with jawans and airmen, wishing them a happy new year, and sharing with them Christmas cakes specially baked by his favourite bakery in Bangalore.

Over 4.5 tonnes of cakes were baked at Koshy’s Bakery in Bangalore, loaded onto an AN-32 cargo aircraft of the Indian Air Force, and brought to Delhi, where ‘Santa Claus’ George Fernandes would decide on their distribution.

The money for manufacturing the cakes -nearly Rs.7 lakhs – was raised by his brothers, who are settled in Canada. Fernandes had been a patron of Koshy’s Bakery for thiry odd years.

During my stay in South Block as communications advisor to George Fernandes, I used to accompany him during his visit to Ladakh and Arunachal in the last week of December. Visiting Ladakh was particularly strenuous. Though I had visited Siachen a number of times in the sixties as a young officer, I was warned not to take the risk in my late sixties, as there was a danger of my contracting pulmonary oedema.

However,I found it difficult to resist witnessing a defence minister who was in my age group sharing his favourite cake with jawans. Though I felt breathless and walked slowly, Fernandes used to move briskly and chat with the jawans.

Fernandes use to visit Ladakh once every three months. During his tenure in the defence ministry, he visited Leh 38 times. He had taken the decision when he became the defence minister that there would be a turnover every three months of troops stationed on the Siachen Glacier.

He also decided that he would visit each of the contingents posted there. Hence, the 38 visits to Siachen during his tenure.

I remember his visit to Arunachal during the last year of the NDA rule, Fernandes decided to visit the state first to distribute cakes. After being briefed about the security situation along the India- Bhutan border, which had just witnessed the flushing out of the ULFA rebels, we flew to Tawang and to posts overlooking the India-China border.

After sharing cakes with jawans at posts overlooking the Thagla Ridge, we returned to Tawang. George Fernandes addressed the jawans, laid a wreath at the memorial erected in memory of martyrs of the 1962 India-China War, and shared Christmas cakes with the jawans. Soon after, we boarded the helicopter to Tezpur to catch an aircraft to Guwahati enroute to Delhi.

When we arrived in Guwahati, we were told that the aircraft which was to take us to Delhi had developed some engine trouble. The Indian Airlines aircraft too had already left for Delhi.

The alternative for us was to travel by an Indian Air Force cargo aircraft. I remember travelling in the cargo compartment of the IL-76 aircraft in cold weather for nearly three hours.

Next morning, Fernandes traveled to Leh to meet the jawans deployed on the Siachen Glacier to wish them a happy new year and share plum cakes with them.

That was the last year of NDA rule.

Fate has been cruel to George Fernandes. Struck by Alzheimers, his memory has been affected. He perhaps is in no condition to realize that his role in the Barak missile deal has been vindicated. By I. Ramamohan Rao (ANI)