Morarji Desai (29 February 1896 – 10 April 1995) was an Indian independence activist and
served between 1977 to 1979 as the 4th Prime Minister of India for the government formed by the
Janata Party. During his long career in politics, he held many important posts in government such
as: Chief Minister of Bombay State, Home Minister, Finance Minister and 2nd Deputy Prime Minister
of India. On the international scene, Desai holds international fame for his peace activism and
made efforts to initiate peace between two rival South Asian states, Pakistan and India[citation
needed]. After India’s first nuclear explosion in 1974, Desai helped restore friendly relations
with China and Pakistan, and vowed to avoid armed conflict such as Indo-Pakistani war of 1971. He
was also accused of scaling down the Indian covert operations agency, the R&AW.
Morarji Desai was born at Bhadeli village, Bulsar district in the Bombay Presidency (now in
Gujarat) on 29 February 1896, the oldest of eight children. His father was a school teacher.
Desai underwent his primary schooling in Saurashtra The Kundla School, Savarkundla now called
J.V. Modi school and later joined Bai Ava Bai High School, Valsad. After graduating from Wilson
College, Mumbai, he joined the civil service in Gujarat. Desai resigned as deputy collector of
Godhra in May 1930 after being found guilty of going soft on Hindus during the riots of 1927-28
Desai then joined the freedom struggle under Mahatma Gandhi and joined the civil disobedience
movement against British rule in India. He spent many years in jail during the freedom struggle
and owing to his sharp leadership skills and tough spirit, he became a favourite amongst
freedom-fighters and an important leader of the Indian National Congress in the Gujarat region.
When provincial elections were held in 1934 and 1937, Desai was elected and served as the Revenue
Minister and Home Minister of the Bombay Presidency.
Chief Minister of Bombay and Partition of two state
Morarji Desai in 1937, as Congress Home Minister of Bombay Presidency
Before the independence of India, he became Bombay’s Home Minister and later was elected as Chief
Minister of Bombay State in 1952. The state was a bi-lingual state, home to Gujarati-speaking and
Marathi-speaking people. Since 1956, activist organization Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti led a
movement for a Marathi-only speaking state of Maharashtra. A staunch nationalist himself, Morarji
Desai was opposed to such movements, including the Mahagujarat Movement led by Indulal Yagnik
demanding a new state of Gujarat. Desai proposed that the metropolitan Mumbai (as coined by
earlier Koli inhabitants), be made into a union territory or a separate development region to
suit its cosmopolitan nature, due to its long-settled citizens from diverse settings across
various linguistic, cultural, and religious backgrounds spanning several generations. In
opposition to his alleged Gandhian thoughts, Desai ordered police to fire on demonstrators of the
Mumbai-unit of Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti at Flora Fountain who had gathered there to
demonstrate against government. The protesters were led by Senapati Bapat. Desai ordered firing
which killed 105 protesters including an eleven-year-old girl during the incident. This escalated
the issue and is believed to have forced the Federal Government to agree to two separate states
based on language. After the formation of the present State of Maharashtra, Bombay, now Mumbai
became its state capital. Flora Fountain was renamed “Hutatma Chowk” (“Martyrs’ Square” in
Marathi) to honour the 105 people killed in the firing. Later Desai moved to Delhi when he was
inducted as Home Minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
As Home Minister, Desai outlawed any portrayals of indecency (which included “kissing” scenes) in
films and theatrical productions. Being a staunch Gandhian, Desai was socially conservative,
pro-business, and in favour of free enterprise reforms, as opposed to Prime Minister Jawaharlal
Nehru’s socialistic policies.
Rising in Congress leadership, as a fierce nationalist with anti-corruption leanings, Desai was
at odds with Prime Minister Nehru and his allies, and with Nehru’s age and health failing, he was
considered as a possible contender for the position of Prime Minister. Outflanked in the
leadership contest after Nehru’s death in 1964 by the Nehruvian Lal Bahadur Shastri, Desai
remained content to build support within the ranks.
In early 1966, the unexpected passing away of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri after only 18
months in power made Morarji Desai once again a contender for the top position. However, he was
defeated by Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, in the Congress party leadership election by a
narrow margin. Desai served as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister of India in the Indira
Gandhi government until 1969 when Prime Minister Gandhi took the finance portfolio from him. At
the same time, she also nationalized the fourteen largest banks in India. These acts compelled
Morarji Desai to resign from the Gandhi cabinet. In the subsequent split of the Congress party,
Morarji joined the Indian National Congress (Organisation) faction of the party, whereas Gandhi
formed a new faction called Indian National Congress (Ruling). Alternatively, the two factions of
Desai and Indira were called Syndicate and Indicate respectively. The 1971 general elections to
the Indian parliament were won by Indira Gandhi’s faction in a landslide. Morarji Desai, however,
was elected as a member of the Lok Sabha or lower house of Parliament. Morarji Desai went on
indefinite hunger strike on 12 March 1975 to support Nav Nirman movement of Gujarat.
In 1975, Indira Gandhi was convicted of electoral fraud by the Allahabad High Court, after
opponents alleged she had used government civil servants and equipment during the campaign for
the 1971 General Elections. During the subsequent Emergency rule in 1975–77, in a massive
crackdown, Desai and other opposition leaders were jailed by the Indira Gandhi government.
The popular anti-corruption movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan and the anti-Emergency wave in
1977 led to the complete routing of the Congress party in Northern India, and a landslide victory
for the opposition Janata alliance in the National elections held in March 1977. Morarji Desai
was selected by the Janata alliance, later Janata Party as their parliamentary leader, and thus
became the first non-Congress Prime Minister of India.
Prime Minister of India (1977-79)
Main article: Premiership of Morarji Desai
Morarji Desai (third from right, front row) with US President Jimmy Carter during his January
1978 visit to India.
Desai with Romanian President Nicolae Ceauşescu in Delhi in May 1978.
Desai and Carter in the Oval Office in June 1978.
First Term as a Prime Minister
After Indira Gandhi decided to lift The Emergency, general elections were held. Janata Party
registered a landslide victory in the election and Morarji Desai became the Prime Minister. Desai
worked to improve relations with neighbour and arch-rival Pakistan and restored normal relations
with China, for the first time since the 1962 war. He communicated with Zia-ul-Haq and
established friendly relations. Diplomatic relations were also re-established with China. His
government undid many amendments made to the constitution during emergency and made it difficult
for any future government to impose a national emergency. However, the Janata Party coalition,
was full of personal and policy friction and thus failed to achieve much owing to continuous
in-wrangling and much controversy. With no party in leadership of the coalition, rival groups
vied to unseat Desai. Controversial trials of prominent Congress leaders, including Indira Gandhi
over Emergency-era abuses worsened the fortunes of his administration.
First Nuclear Test
Since India’s first nuclear test in 1974, Desai kept India’s nuclear reactors stating “they will
never be used for atomic bombs, and I will see to it if I can help it”. In 1977, the Carter
administration offered to sell India, heavy water and uranium for its nuclear reactors but
required American on-site inspection of nuclear materials. Desai declined, seeing the American
stance as contradictory, in light of its own nuclear arsenal. Domestically, he played a crucial
role in the Indian nuclear program after it was targeted by major nuclear powers after conducting
a surprise test in 1974. Morarji Desai closed down much of India’s premier intelligence agency
Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), reduced its budget and operations and was personally
responsible for the treachery of decimation of R&AW’s network in Pakistan by leaking the details
of India’s deep knowledge of Kahuta Project to the then Pakistani dictator Zia Ul Haq. Desai
remains the only Indian national to be conferred with Pakistan’s highest civilian award,
Nishan-e-Pakistan, which was conferred on him by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan in 1990 in a
colorful ceremony. Later, his policies promoted social, health and administrative reforms in the
country. It is rumored that he was a mole of CIA in Indira Gandhi led cabinet. He also revealed
that the R&AW is well aware of Pakistan’s Nuclear activity in Kahuta to the Pakistani general
Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in a telephonic conversation
Decimation of R&AW
Morarji Desai had described the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), India’s external intelligence
agency, as the praetorian guard of Indira Gandhi and had promised to stop all activities of the
R&AW after becoming prime minister. He closed down much of the agency, and reduced its budget and
operations, such as closing its Information Division. B. Raman, the former head of the
Counter-Terrorism Division of R&AW and noted security analyst, reveals that, in an informal
discussion, Morarji Desai indiscreetly told Pakistan’s Chief Martial Law Administrator General
Zia ul-Haq that his government was well aware of Pakistan’s nuclear development.
In 1979, Raj Narain and Charan Singh pulled out of the Janata Party, forcing Desai to resign from
office and retire from politics at the age of 83. The chief reason for the collapse was the
demand by the duo and other left leaning members like Madhu Limaye, Krishan Kant and George
Fernandes that no member of the Janata party could simultaneously be a member of an alternative
social or political organisation. This attack on “dual membership” was directed specifically at
members of the Janata party who had been members of the Jan Sangh, and continued to be members of
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Jan Sangh’s ideological parent.
Morarji Desai campaigned for the Janata Party in 1980 General Election as a senior politician but
did not contest the election himself. In retirement, he lived in Mumbai and died on 10 April 1995
at the age of 99. He was much honoured in his last years as a freedom-fighter of his generation.
Morarji Desai was a strict follower of Mahatma Gandhi’s principles and a moralist. He was a
vegetarian “both by birth and by conviction.”
Morarji Desai was a Gandhian follower, social worker, institution builder and a great reformer.
He was the Chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith. Even during his term as the Prime Minister he used to
visit and stay at Vidyapith during the month of October. He lived simply and used to write post
cards himself even when he held the office of Prime Minister. Sardar Patel deputed him to conduct
meetings of farmers in Kaira district which finally led to the establishment of the Amul
Cooperative movement. During his rule, he withdrew intervention in Public Distribution System and
rationing shops were literally lost due to cheap sugar and oil available in the market.