New Delhi, Jan.16: George Fernandes is propped up against the cushions on a bed in the middle of a hospital room. Durga Bahadur, his long-time attendant, hovers beside him. Above the bed, on its right, a television screen flickers with images no one in the room is paying attention to.
The “firebrand” socialist who became India’s Defence Minister, now 79, formally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2006 and admitted to a South Delhi hospital since January 8 this year, has no way of sensing the full extent of the war that’s broken out over him among his family and friends.
On one side of this sad and tangled tale are George’s estranged wife Leila Kabir Fernandes and their only child, Sean, who lives in the US. On the other, primarily, Jaya Jaitly, his long-time colleague and confidante, and Richard Fernandes, one of his four brothers.
At the centre, both sides maintain, is the imperative to provide the best possible care to the ailing leader. Accusations fly about a power of attorney given and revoked and alleged secrecy about land deals running into crores.
The fight over George spilled over into the public domain on January 2, when Sean Fernandes, then on a visit to India to see his father, filed a complaint at Tughlaq Road police station, asking the police to provide security to the immediate family — George, Leila, Sean, his wife and their 10-month-old son — and instructing guards not to let anyone enter the house without the immediate family’s authorisation.
On the letter he submitted to the police, Sean wrote that Jaya Jaitly must not be allowed access to his ailing father.
That was the time Leila and Sean with his wife and son had moved into George’s official home, 3, Krishna Menon Marg. “I wanted time alone with my Dad, to assess his condition. Till we figured out what’s best for my father, I wanted access to him limited to family and well wishers”, says Sean, on phone
from the US. “I have recently had a son. It has made me appreciate what I had missed with my father. I was also obsessed with my career like my father was, but now I want to be the best father I can be. It makes you aware of your family”, he says.
When contacted, Jaitly, who is in Chennai, refused to comment, but directed The Indian Express to Abhijat, advocate and George’s brother, Richard.
“It was a palace coup” says Abhijat. “Where was the need for Leila and Sean to move into George’s home in the night? It could have been done in daylight”, says Richard, on phone from Bangalore. “Any doctor will tell you it is important there are no sudden changes for an Alzheimer’s patient. You don’t suddenly hand him over to strangers”, he says. “For George, Leila, Sean, even his grandson, are strangers”. Richard was denied access to his brother in hospital on January 8.
Abhijat, who says he has been handling the legal affairs of “George saab” ever since he appeared for him before the Venkatswami Commission in the Tehelka matter in 2001, an association that developed into an “emotional bond”, says that thumb impressions were obtained from George by Leila and Sean on an earlier visit on December 18, 2009.
A few days later, Jaitly received a letter, “apparently from George saab”, revoking the power of attorney given to her jointly, alongwith George’s Man Friday for nearly four decades, Fredrick (Freddy) D’Sa, on March 21, 2009.
In an e-mail addressed to George’s brothers Paul, Michael, Louis and Richy soon after that, Jaya wrote: “As you all know well I have been a trusted and loyal comrade and colleague of your eldest brother George since 1984... According to his wishes, I have at different times managed his party, his work place and his domestic establishment simply because I believe that a great political leader, doing great things, needs a support system that frees him of small daily routines and responsibilities...Since it was becoming impossible for George’s signatures to tally and the banks in Delhi were refusing to honour cheques signed by him, we were compelled to be the constituted powers of attorney to enable us to use George’s salary for his immediate work and expenses...I have just received an obviously strange communication which in effect is an attempt to prevent me from caring for George or running his establishment, which includes his health, medication, food etc.”
Sean admits that George’s thumb impression was taken for revoking Jaitly’s power of attorney but says it was done as per George’s own wish: “I had a long conversation with my dad. It was one of his lucid moments. I asked him specifically, have you given the POA? He said no. I asked him, do you want to revoke it. He said yes. Later I found out that my wife had videotaped part of my conversation with Dad. He was agreeing with me.”
“It hasn’t been done according to procedure, the paper is not legally valid”, contends Abhijat. “But”, he adds, “Jayaji has made a decision not to act on the POA anymore.” There is no dispute over George’s property, says Abhijat. “As far as I know, there is no will. Now Saab cannot give informed consent. So, the money goes to the legal heirs. No one’s contesting that. These are all devils in her (Leila’s) mind”, he says. “Our only appeal is that she mustn’t exclude us from George saab’s life.”
“This is not about the money at all”, says Leila. “For me, the primary concern is that George is looked after as best as is possible”.
“It’s all there in the accounts”, says Abhijat. George has no immoveable assets, he says, and his declared assets in the affidavits filed with the Election Commission for the Lok Sabha polls and then the Rajya Sabha nomination earlier this year drew overwhelmingly from the sale of agricultural land at Neelamangala, near Bangalore, inherited from George’s mother Alice Fernandes, in 2006. It was old property that had turned precious, he says.
The payment for Neela Mangala was received in stages, says Abhijat, and the final payment came in after the LS polls and before the RS nomination. He gives the figures: approximately Rs 15.6 crore for Neela Mangala, plus 60 lakh from the sale of an ancestral home, minus Rs 3.06 crore paid towards tax.
“I cannot quantify. As per the affidavit, his assets run into a certain number of crores. The other component, who knows? Everyone knows land deals are done in this country in a certain manner,” says Leila.
Back in the hospital room, as the doctor takes his leave after a brief look-in, George speaks out his name for the first time: “Hitesh”. “Arre wah”, exclaims the doctor. “We will play more games, sir, and do more exercises”.
On a paper in Leila’s hand is the printed list of daily activities advised by the occupational therapist: Self-care activities — brushing teeth, dressing, eating; attention-building activities — reading bold headlines, simple block games.
With grandson Ken, daughter-in-law Chikako, Leila at his house in New Delhi recently