Morarji Ranchhodji Desai was an Indian independence activist and served between 1977 and 1979 as the 4th Prime Minister of India and led the government formed by the Janata Party. He was the first non-Congress Prime Minister of India.
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.
He was honoured with the highest civilian award of Pakistan, the Nishan-e-Pakistan on 19 May 1990.
He is the oldest person to hold the office of prime minister, at the age of 84, in the history of Indian politics.
He was conferred with India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna.
He was born in Bhadeli village, Bulsar district, Bombay Presidency, British India (present-day Valsad district, Gujarat, India) on 29 February 1896, the eldest of eight children. His father was a school teacher.
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.
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. Later, he was elected as Chief Minister of Bombay State in 1952.
Morarji Desai was opposed to separation of Bombay state into Gujrati and Marathi speaking people. His “shoot-at-sight” orders for protestors took 105 lives which escalated the issue and is believed to have forced the Central Government to agree to two separate states based on language.
Later Desai moved to Delhi when he was inducted as finance Minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
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.
In 1964 after prime minister’s Nehru’s death, Desai was outflanked in the leadership contest by the Nehru’s protege, Lal Bahadur Shastri. Desai was invited but did not join the short lived Shastri cabinet.
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 big margin.
Desai served as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister of India in the Indira Gandhi government until July 1969 when Prime Minister Gandhi took the finance portfolio from him but asked him to serve as the deputy prime minister. However, to save his self-respect act, Desai tendered his resignation from the Gandhi cabinet.
When the Congress party split in 1969, Morarji joined the Indian National Congress (Organisation) faction of the party, whereas Indira Gandhi formed a new faction called Indian National Congress (Ruling).
Morarji Desai went on indefinite hunger strike on 12 March 1975 to support Nav Nirman movement of Gujarat.
During the 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 Janata-wave in 1977 led to 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.
On the international scene, Desai holds international fame for his peace activism and created efforts to initiate peace between two rival South Asian states, Pakistan and India.
Desai restored normal relations with China, for the first time since the 1962 war.
He also communicated with the military ruler of Pakistan, General Zia-ul-Haq and established friendly relations. Despite his pacifist leanings, he refused to sign the non-nuclear proliferation treaty despite the threat of stopping supply of uranium for power plants by the USA Congress.
After India’s first nuclear test in 1974, Desai helped restore friendly relations with China and Pakistan, and vowed to avoid armed conflict such as Indo-Pakistani war of 1971.
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”. Internationally, he reaffirmed India’s stand that it would not manufacture nuclear weapons and would refrain from conducting even peaceful nuclear explosions.
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.
His government undid many amendments made to the constitution during emergency and made it more difficult for any future government to impose a national emergency.
However, In 1979, Raj Narain and Charan Singh pulled out of the Janata Party, besides personal and policy friction in the party forced Desai to resign from office.
He subsequently retired from all political posts, but continued to campaign for the Janata Party in 1980.
He died at the age of 99 on 10 April 1995.
Desai, a longtime practitioner of ‘urine therapy’, spoke in 1978 to Dan Rather on 60 Minutes about the benefits of drinking urine. The prime minister stated that urine therapy was the perfect medical solution for the millions of Indians who cannot afford medical treatment. He also attributed his longevity to drinking urine – which he called “the water of life”
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.