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Morarji Desai biography

Morarji Desai

(1896-1995)

biography

     Morarji was born on the intercalary day of 29 February 1896, in a Brahmin family in a village in Surat district. He was one of the six children of his parents, father Ranchhodji and mother Vajiben. His father was a teacher in a village school. The early childhood of Morarji, however, was spent in his maternal grandfather’s place, Bhadeli.
He received his primary education in this village and for secondary education, he was sent to Bulsar. When he was a boy of fifteen, his father committed suicide by jumping into a well, just three days before Morarji’s arranged marriage to an eleven-year old Gajraben. However, Morarji went through with the marriage on the appointed day and became the head of the family, which included, besides the child bride, his grandmother, mother, three brothers and two sisters. On his passing matriculation examination in 1912 he won a scholarship which enabled him to join Wilson College, Bombay, where he studied from 1913 to 1917. After graduation, he joined Bombay Provincial Civil Service in 1918 and spent the next twelve years in service there, working mostly as a revenue officer or a magistrate.
morarji desai
Morarji Desai

In 1930, Morarji resigned from government service and joined the Indian National Congress. The same year, Gandhi had started the Civil Disobedience Movement and Morarji took part in it and was imprisoned. But all the satyagrahis were set free after the Gandhi-Irwin Pact in March 1931. Morarji had become a member of the local Gujarat Congress Committee and came to the notice of Sardar Patel, who was president of the committee. He was appointed its secretary. During the next four years Morarji was imprisoned thrice for participating in the antigovernment movement led by the Congress party. In 1931, he was nominated as a member of the All-India Congress Committee (AICC).
In 1937, the Congress party fought elections for the provincial Assemblies. Desai was elected from his home district and was appointed minister for revenue and forests in the Congress ministry, headed by Chief Minister B.G. Kher. In 1939, all the Congress ministries resigned against the British government’s decision to involve India in the World War without her consent. After relinquishing office, Morarji participated in the individual Satyagraha and was imprisoned. During the Quit India Movement, he was detained for three years. After the War, elections for provincial assemblies were held in 1946 and Morarji was elected to the Bombay Legislative Assembly and became home and revenue minister (1946-52) again in B.G. Kher’s ministry. During these six years, Morarji earned the reputation ‘as a puritan zealot’, who would put even Mrs. Grundy to shame. The most important of such puritanical measures was the introduction of total prohibition, which led to bootlegging and ultimately gave birth to criminals. Like some of his other measures, this measure also proved unsuccessful. Because of the unpopularity of his puritanical crusade, he lost the election to the Provincial Assembly in 1952. But B.G. Kher retired and made Morarji his successor, being the senior most member of his cabinet. Morarji later got himself elected in a by election and served as the chief minister of Bombay state from 1952-56 As chief minister, he is remembered for ruthlessly putting down the agitation for Samyukta Maharashtra, in which about eighty persons, mostly students, were killed in police firing. In the words of the Illustrated Weekly, Desai became ‘the most hated person’ in the province. Apart from this notoriety, which he earned partly because of the vacillating policy of the Nehru government with regard to the re-organisation of provinces on the linguistic basis, Desai had proved himself a good administrator, a no-nonsense man. He was instrumental in introducing far-reaching reforms in the land revenue administration and also in police and jail re-organisation. He thought of the peasant and tenants both, and enacted progressive legislation for them, much before any Indian province did anything in this direction. His experience as a government official during the British Raj did help him in administering the Bombay province, which came to be known for its efficiency, progress and integrity.
In November 1956, Morarji joined Nehru’s Union Cabinet, as minister for commerce and industry. He was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1962 elections and thus continued as finance minister, a portfolio he held from 1958 to 1963. In 1958, at the age of sixty-two, he went out of the country for the first time, visiting Europe, United States and Canada. As finance minister, he led the Indian delegation to the annual meetings of the Board of Governors of the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in New Delhi in 1958 and in Washington in 1959, 1960 and 1961. He also attended the Commonwealth Finance Minister’s Conference in London in 1960 and 1961. He was quite successful as a finance minister. “Defence through development, creation of a climate of confidence and initiative, export promotion and austerity in government administration, public corporations and companies in the private sector and in the personal lives of the privileged segments of the society, formed the main theme of his economic and fiscal policies”. But as finance minister he is remembered most for promulgating the Gold Control Order as an ordinance in January 1963, which prohibited the production of any gold jewellery purer than fourteen carats, thus antagonizing many persons. “The main purpose of gold control was to prevent the smuggling of gold worth crores of rupees into India from outside. As long as the attraction of gold was not lessened and the demand for gold was not reduced, it would be difficult to control the smuggling of gold. It was, therefore, necessary to take steps to lessen the attraction of gold in the public mind”, he contended.
In 1963, he was forced out of the Nehru Cabinet under the Kamraj Plan which was called on the senior leaders of the Congress to resign from ministerial posts and to Work for strengthening the party. Many believe, Morarji included, that the Kamraj Plan was essentially to oust Morarji from the Cabinet.
After the death of Nehru in May 1964, the question of his successor arose. By this time, Kamraj, his bete noire, had become the president of the Congress, who saw to it that Morarji did not become the prime minister. He put up the name of Lal Bahadur Shastri and managed to get him elected ‘unanimously’ as the prime minister. When Lal Bahadur died suddenly in 1966, Desai wasted no time in making a second bid for the prime minister-ship. Though Desai was the most prominent Congress leader, he had antagonized many members in the party. His advocacy of Hindi as the national language had made the entire South block against him. Kamraj rallied all his forces and proposed the name of lndira Gandhi as a candidate for prime minister-ship. This time Morarji did not quit and a contest became inevitable. The Congress parliamentary party met on 19 January 1966 to decide ‘the issue. Indira Gandhi polled 355 votes against Morarji’s 189. Indira Gandhi initially did not include Morarji in her cabinet. In the 1967 Lok Sabha elections, Morarji was again elected from Surat constituency and Indira Gandhi again became the prime minister, without any opposition. She wanted Morarji to join her cabinet because the Congress had suffered reverses in the 1967 elections and she thought that including Morarji in her cabinet would strengthen the Congress party. After some haggling, it was decided that Morarji would be the finance minister and also would be designated the deputy prime minister. ‘His performance both in Parliament and in councils of the Party was so skilful and the force of his will and personality so evident that he almost came to exert decisive influence in the making of policy’. That made Mrs. Gandhi somewhat jittery as she did not want to be upstaged and was looking to undermine his position. Controversy cropped up in 1969 on the issue of nationalisation of banks and on the selection of a candidate for president-ship of the Congress. The old guard, including Morarji, opposed Mrs. Gandhi on these and on some other issues. She gambled and split the Congress party into two. Her wing of the Congress came later to be known as Congress and the other faction as Congress (O). Morarji opted for the latter, and was asked by the prime minister to resign from the posts held by him (16 July 1969). From 1969 to the advent of the Emergency (1975), Morarji sat with the insignificant opposition in the Parliament, as leader of the Congress (0). Mrs. Gandhi used Emergency to remain in power after the verdict of the Allahabad High Court against the validity of her election of 1971. Morarji Desai was arrested along with thousands others whom Mrs. Gandhi considered her adversaries. He remained in prison for nineteen months. Emergency rules were relaxed in January, 1977, in preparation for parliamentary elections to be held in March 1977. Various political parties formed a coalition under the name Janta Party, Morarji heading the faction Congress (O). The other parties which joined hands to oppose Mrs. Gandhi’s Congress were Bharatiya Lok Dal, JanaSangh, the Socialists and a splinter group of Congress, led by jagjivan Ram. Congress was routed and the Janta Party formed the government with Morarji as the prime minister. He was eighty-one at the time but still active. One of the first acts of his government was to repeal laws imposing internal Emergency. It also initiated an economic strategy based on labour-intensive private industry and voluntary groups in rural areas. But the policy did not shift radically, and there was a rising tide of strikes, communal violence and general frustration in the country. Morarji was riding a chariot of twenty horses, each pulling in a different direction. There were ego clashes and factional disputes. The Janta government collapsed in july 1979, making way for Indira Gandhi to come to power again. Morarji's public career came to an end. He led a retired life for another sixteen years and died in Bombay on 10 April 1995.
After the 19305 Morarji led the life of a true Gandhian - wearing Khadi, spinning regularly, being a strict vegetarian and a teetotaler. He even tried to copy Gandhi’s technique of undergoing a fast to win over his opponents. But surprisingly he was never one of those close to Gandhi. In the most comprehensive and official eight volume biography of Gandhi by Tendulkar, titled Mahatma, the name of Morarji Desai does not appear even once. His outspokenness could be one of the reasons.
Morarji Desai was a tall, handsome man. A man of fixed habits and equally fixed ideas, he did not change with the times. However, he was an extremely good administrator and a man of courage. He was also a man of integrity, though it came under question during his prime ministership when charges of corruption were leveled against his son Kantilal, who was his private secretary. He wrote his autobiography, The Story of my life, in three volumes, which is prosaic and tiresome, and in which he devotes one full chapter to defending Kantilal and his relations with him. In the preface of the book, he says: “He felt that he had to write the book, because it was my duty to write about my experiences so that the reader might get some guidance from them when he is confused”. Modesty was certainlynot one of his virtues.

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