OBITUARY: Morarji Desai

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The Independent Online
Morarji Desai, the former Indian prime minister, was a staunch Gandhian, driven by the burning conviction that he had a selfless mission to accomplish.

Whatever cause the ascetic and eccentric Desai espoused during a turbulent and controversial political career spanning five decades - including two years as prime minister, from 1977 to 1979 (at which time he was the world's oldest head of government) - he tried to imbue it with spirituality and righteousness. ``I am a rightist in the sense that I believe in doing right,'' he said. And, the quietly ambitious, through outwardly self-effacing Desai genuinely believed he did little wrong.

A strong protagonist of prohibition and yoga, he caused discomfiture to millions of Indians when, as prime minister, he propounded the efficiency of urine-drinking. He attributed his longevity to drinking urine - which he called the ``water of life'' - at least twice every day.

No amount of calumny or criticism could deter Desai from speaking his mind. With his confrontationalist attitude, he battered all opposition into silence through a combination of belligerence and calculated bellicosity. Whether he was talking to journalists, politicians or even visiting dignitaries, including heads of government and state, Desai seldom minced words, irrespective of the fall-out, which at times was considerable.

And, though his stoicism endeared him to a small band of admirers, a majority of Indians considered him an embodiment of obscurantism and obstinacy who espoused antediluvian, regressive and protectionist fiscal measures which sparked off an inflationary spiral in the Sixties. He was also castigated for imposing prohibition in several states when prime minister, despite promises to the contrary during his election campaign.

Morarji Desai was born into a poor schoolteacher's family in 1896, the oldest of eight children, at Bhadeli village in Bulsar district in the Bombay presidency (present-day Gujarat). After local schooling he joined Wilson College, in Bombay, on a monthly scholarship of 10 rupees and free board and lodging. Austere even then, Desai would send more of his scholarship money home to supplement his father's meagre income.

After graduating in Physics in 1917, he joined the Provincial Civil Service and was appointed Deputy Commissioner of Ahmedabad. Soon after, however, Desai came under the spell of Mahatma Gandhi, then newly arrived from South Africa, and his independence struggle and in 1930 resigned his job, throwing in his lot with the Mahatma and joining the Congress Party.

As part of Gandhi's civil disobedience movement, Desai was often jailed, but under increased political autonomy was elected as legislator in Bombay`s provisional government in 1935. Over the next 10 turbulent years Desai held a number of cabinet posts before becoming Bombay's chief minister in 1951 and was responsible for overhauling the police and introducing land reforms.

He was also responsible for imposing prohibition in the state, which was lifted in Maharastra in the mid-Seventies but continues even today in neighbouring Gujarat.

In 1956 Desai resigned over the bifurcation of Bombay presidency into the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat and was summoned in 1956 by the prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to Delhi where, in turn, he held posts as federal commerce, industry and finance minister. Desai's term as finance minister, however, was dogged by scandals involving his son and he invited criticism by introducing a rolling economic plan and selling government-held gold.

But, despite countrywide criticism and mounting criticism of his fiscal policy, Desai would not relent and neutralised all onslaughts with characteristic steadfastness. ``Governments operate for ordinary people, not for freaks like me,'' he said.

Soon after, however, Desai emerged twice, albeit unsuccessfully, as a contender for the prime ministership - once after the death of Nehru in 1964 and then again, two years later, after the death of Nehru's successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri.

The second time round Desai lost out to Mrs Indira Gandhi - whom he considered an unsuitable candidate, and said as much. A distrusting Mrs Gandhi, who never forgave him for his earlier slights, retained Desai as deputy prime minister and finance minister. But, once firmly ensconced, she settled scores by abruptly relieving Desai of the finance portfolio in the late Sixties and arbitrarily nationalising banks.

Desai resigned, split the Congress Party, moved to the western state of Gujarat and set about organising political opposition to the prime minister. This coincided with a popular uprising across the country against Mrs Gandhi's growing authoritarianism and Desai became a principal rallying point for these activists.

In June 1975, Mrs Gandhi imposed an internal emergency, suspending civil liberties, after she was indicted for electoral malpractices; all political opponents, including Desai, were arrested.

Two years later, however, the wheel turned full circle when mid-term elections were called and the Janata Party coalition, a conglomeration of disparate parties with varying ideologies, headed by Desai, was voted to power. In 1977 Desai became India's first non-Congress Party prime minister.

From the onset, however, 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 and in July 1979, a little over two years after it assumed office, Desai's government fell.

Six months later, a triumphant Mrs Gandhi, largely responsible for having engineered the Janata party split and portraying herself as woman unjustly persecuted by an inefficient government, was voted back into office. An unrepentant Desai retired to Bombay.

But even here controversy continued to haunt him when he was accused by Seymour Hersh, a respected American writer of having links with the CIA. In characteristic style Desai, called it a "mad" assertion and filed a £1m defamation suit in a US court which, ultimately, came to nothing.

In retirement, Desai dedicated himself to searching for truth and God. An ascetic in private life, Desai took two meals a day consisting of milk, fruit juice, vegetables and garlic.

Kuldip Singh

Morarji Ranchodji Desai, politician: born Bhadeli, village, western India 29 February 1896; Prime Minister of India 1977-79; married; died Bombay 10 April 1995.