Morarji Ranchhodji Desai was an Indian freedom fighter and the first non-Congress Party Prime Minister of India. He is the only person to receive the highest civilian awards from both India and Pakistan, namely the Bharat Ratna and Nishaan-e-Pakistan. Originally a college-educated civil servant in Gujarat, Desai left the service of the British in 1924 and joined the civil disobedience movement against British rule in India in 1930. He spent many years in jail during the freedom struggle and owing to his sharp leadership skills and tough spirit, became a favorite amongst freedom-fighters and an important leader of the Indian National Congress in Gujarat. When provincial elections were held in 1934 and 1937, Desai was elected and served as the Revenue Minister and Home Minister of the then Bombay Presidency.
Before the Independence of India, he became Bombay’s Home Minister and later was elected Chief Minister of Bombay in 1952. Respected as a tough leader, Desai was also known for eccentric beliefs and arrogance in authority. As Home Minister, for example, Desai had outlawed any “kissing” scenes in films and theatrical productions. Although a staunch Gandhian, Desai was socially conservative, pro-business, and for free enterprise reforms, as opposed to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s socialistic policies. Rising in Congress leadership, Desai was at odds with Prime Minister Nehru and his allies, and with Nehru’s age and health flagging, was considered a tough contender for the PM’s job. 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. But he chose to go all-out for the top job in 1966 after Shastri’s death, and fought a very closely-contested race with Indira Gandhi, for not only the control of the majority party, but of the nation’s future direction. It was liberal socialism versus conservative nationalism, and Desai’s 169 votes lost to Indira’s 351. Initially Desai stayed out of the Cabinet, biding his time. As the young novice PM’s government grew imbroiled in controversy following a poor harvest, controversial currency devaluation, and rising disenchantment in the country, Desai’s position grew powerful and he returned to the Cabinet in 1967. He demanded the powerful, no. 2 office, the Ministry for Home Affairs, but settled for the Ministry for Finance, with the title of the Deputy Prime Minister. Relations between this 71-year old hard-nosed veteran and his 50-year old female boss were strained, and Desai often spoke in contempt of Indira as that “bit of a girl.” In 1969, Indira Gandhi and her allies engineered a major schism in the Congress Party, and her rebelling, leftist Congressmen formed the Congress (R), later to become the Congress (I) Party. Desai and the Congress establishment cohesed to form the Congress (O) Party. But in General Elections held in 1971, the Congress (O) was drubbed owing to Indira Gandhi’s popularity as a wartime leader. Desai remained Leader of the Opposition of a flagging party of old men adhering to freedom-era legacies. When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was convicted in 1974 of using government machinery for election work, Desai joined Jaya Prakash Narayan in organizing mass protests throughout the country calling for her resignation. Combining frustration with corruption and economic disenchantment with outrage at this conviction, the opposition coalition created much disorder and unrest in the country. Desai was arrested in 1975 when Indira Gandhi declared Emergency. An old freedom-fighter was thus ironically arrested for an act of civil disobedience of the Government of Nehru’s daughter. When Indira called elections in 1977, scores of opposition groups, including the Congress (O), joined with longtime rivals, regional parties and blocs of rival ideologies to form the Janata Party. It won 356 seats, a near-absolute majority. Morarji Desai finally won the Prime Minister’s job when J.P. Narayan picked him as the man most likely to keep the coalition united. He was 81, but amazingly healthy and vigorous, without any particular ailments. Interestingly, he became India’s first Deputy PM to climb to the post of Indian Prime Minister. Desai led a fractious collage of a coalition government, and thus failed to achieve much owing to continuous wrangling and 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 tied down the fortunes of his administration. Desai worked to improve relations with neighbor and archrival Pakistan and restored diplomatic relations with China, frozen since the 1962 war. But no significant legislative agenda could be assembled or passed owing to continuous internecine warfare. Increasingly unpopular because the public saw his government as victimizing Indira, a woman in a helpless position, Desai’s son was also accused of corruption, abusive influence over the PM’s role, and misuse of government resources. Desai is however credited with improving relations with Pakistan and Zia-ul-Haq. Diplomatic relations were also re-established with China. His greatest contribution was that his Government renewed people’s faith in democracy. His Government undid many amendments made to the constitution during emergency and made it difficult for any future Government to impose National emergency. In 1979, Charan Singh pulled his BLD out of the Janata alliance, and Desai resigned from office and retired from politics at 83 years old. He lived in the city of Mumbai, and died at the age of 99. He had been honored much in his last years as the last great living freedom-fighter of his generation. Morarji Desai was a strict follower of Mahatma Gandhi’s principles and a moralist.