Morarji Desai

Morarji Desai (29 February 1896 – 10 April 1995)[1] 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.
School education

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

there.
Freedom fighter

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.
In government
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.
Home Minister

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.
Emergency Wave

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.
Retirement

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.
Death

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.”
Social service
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.

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