Morarji Desai, the fourth Prime Minister of India, was born on 29 February 1896. The first Prime Minister to lead a non-Congress government, he died on 10 April 1995.
Born to a schoolteacher’s family in Valsad (now part of Gujarat), he was the oldest of eight siblings. He did his schooling in Saurashtra and Valsad, and secured his graduation from Bombay’s Wilson College.
He joined the Gujarat civil service and became Ahmedabad’s deputy commissioner. But influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, he later joined the Congress. He took part in the Independence movement and was jailed several times for nationalistic activities.
Following the provincial elections of the 1930s, he went on to head important posts in the Bombay Presidency, including that of Home Minister. In 1951 he became Bombay’s Chief Minister. Among his notable policies were police reforms and imposition of prohibition in the state.
Split from the Congress
After the sudden death of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1966, Desai was one of the persons tipped to be the next PM, but eventually the top job went to Indira Gandhi.
He, however, became union Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet.
But he resigned after he was removed from the finance ministry. As R.J. Venkateswaran wrote in the Hindu Business Line: “After announcing the decision to nationalise the 14 banks on July 29, 1969, Indira Gandhi herself took over the Finance portfolio, thereby making it difficult for Morarji Desai to remain in the Cabinet. When he expressed his strong resentment at her action, she told him he could continue in the Cabinet as Deputy Prime Minister and hold charge of some other portfolio.”
In his resignation note to Indira Gandhi, Desai wrote: “If you wanted a change in the Finance Ministry, you could have discussed it with me. You know very well that I never discussed any matter with you in an improper manner . . . . [Y]ou have behaved towards me in a manner in which no one would behave even with a clerk.”
Desai became part of the Indian National Congress (Organisation), a faction of the Congress. Indira formed her own Indian National Congress (Ruling), which won the 1971 Lok Sabha polls by a comfortable majority. When Indira Gandhi declared emergency in 1975, Desai was among the opposition leaders put in jail.
As Prime Minister
After Indira Gandhi lifted the emergency in 1977 and declared fresh elections, the Congress suffered its first national electoral defeat and the Janata coalition came to power. Morarji Desai was the unanimous choice for Prime Minister.
In its obituary on Desai, The New York Times wrote about his tenure as prime minister: “Desai tried to accommodate different political groups in forming national policy, but ultimately found the task of reconciling them beyond his capacity. He found foreign policy an easier job. He sought to revise Mrs. Gandhi’s tilt toward the Soviet Union and proclaimed a policy of ‘genuine nonalignment’. He visited President Carter in Washington and welcomed him to India in 1978.”
The non-Congress regime did not last and the government fell two years later. “From the onset . . . the Janata Party was doomed to failure, beset as it was by internecine quarrels, many spawned by Desai’s confrontational attitude and an unsuccessful witch hunt against Mrs. Gandhi and her loyalists. Internal pressures proved disastrous . . . ,” wrote The Independent in 1995.
Indira Gandhi soon returned to power and it was pretty much the end of the political road for Desai, who was well into his eighties by now. When asked why the Janata government did not last, he said in an interview to the Society magazine: “There were some who wanted to be Prime Minister. This is the malady in this country. In fact, Mr. Charan Singh said that his life’s ambition was to be the Prime Minister. . . . As a matter of fact, the formation of the Janata Party was a new thing happening in the country for the first time.”
Such a long journey
Desai was the only Indian who was awarded both the Nishan-e-Pakistan and the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian awards of Pakistan and India, respectively. Morarji Desai, who had several fads when it came to food and natural therapies, died on 10 April 1995. He was 99.
In his autobiography, The Story of my Life, Desai had written: “I do not consider anyone inferior to me or myself superior to anybody. Ever since I became an adult, I have been convinced that one should form no habits except the habit of telling the truth. All other habits enslave one and make one dependent and weak.”
Also on this day:
1941 — Mani Shankar Aiyar, Congress politician and union minister, was born
1952 — Narayan Rane, Chief Minister of Maharashtra, was born
- The Story of My Life by Morarji Desai