Morarji Ranchhodji Desai (February 29, 1896 – April 10, 1995) was an Indian freedom fighter and the first non-Congress Party Prime Minister of India. He is the world’s oldest person to become prime minister. He is the only Indian to receive the highest civilian awards from both India and Pakistan, namely the Bharat Ratna and Nishaan-e-Pakistan.
Morarji Desai was born into a Anavil Brahmin family in Bhadeli, Gujarat. 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 Mumbai’s Home Minister and later was elected Chief Minister of Bombay in 1952. The state was home to Marathi linguistic movements, with Marathi people were fighting for justice i.e. to create separate linguistic state. Considered as a tough leader, Desai was also known for pioneering beliefs and disciplinary in authority and most of the times his radical thinking. By Desai’s orders in 1960 a peaceful demonstration by the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti was fired upon by the police resulting in deaths of 105 demonstrators. Many innocent people were killed in the incidence. A huge public outrage shook the central government. The incident led to the formation of the present State of Maharashtra. As Home Minister, 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.
When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was convicted in 1974 of wrongfully using government machinery for election work and corruption, Desai joined Jaya Prakash Narayan in organizing mass protests throughout the country calling for her resignation. In a show of intolerance towards any sort of opposition, Indira Gandhi declared Emergency and had all the opposition leaders including Desai arrested in 1975. An old freedom-fighter was thus arrested for a protest against the corruption within the Government and as a result became a victim of that corruption.
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 and for the first time since independence, the dominance of the ruling Congress party was broken. 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 (Desai who lived to be almost a hundred years used perform ‘shivambhu’ after following a strict hygiene guidelines, claiming it gave him health benefits), 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 neighbour and arch rival Pakistan and restored normal relations with China, for the first time since the 1962 war.
During his time Desai greatly improved 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 ripe old age of 99. He had been honoured 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.