Morarji Desai was an Independence activist, political leader, and India’s 4th Prime Minister. He held the post for 2 years and 4 months, before resigning as a result of Raj Narain and Charan Singh leaving the Janata Party in 1979. Morarji Desai retired from politics following his resignation.
Desai became a freedom activist under Mahatma Gandhi, joining the Civil Disobedience Movement against the British rule. He spent a significant amount of his time in jail, owing to his leadership skills and toughness. He was revered amongst his peers and was an important leader of the Indian National Congress. In 1937, Desai was elected as Revenue and Home Minister of the Bombay Presidency.
Morarji Desai was elected as Bombay State’s Chief Minister in 1952. The Bombay Presidency was a bilingual state, consisting of Marathas and Gurajatis. In 1956, there was a movement led by Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti seeking a separate, Marathi-only speaking state, Maharashtra. On the other hand, there was a movement called the Maha Gujarat Movement led by Indulal Yagnik, seeking a Gujarati-only speaking state of Gujarat.
Desai was opposed to both groups, being a nationalist himself. He opined that state be made a Union territory or a separate development region, to suit its cosmopolitan nature; citing its long settled citizens from diverse linguistic, cultural and religious backgrounds spanning several decades.
A demonstration was held at Flora Fountain by some members of the Mumbai-unit of the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti, led by the Senapati Bapat. Going against his Gandhian ideals, Desai ordered the police to fire at the demonstrators which resulted in the deaths of 105 protestors, including that of an eleven-year-old girl. The issue escalated the formation of two states based on language. Flora Fountain was renamed ‘Hutatma Chowk‘ meaning ‘Martyrs Square’ in Marathi.
Morarji Desai, being a fierce nationalist with anti-corruption leanings, found himself at odds with Prime Minister Nehru and his allies. He was a contender for the Premiership position, following Nehru’s failing health, but lost to Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1964. Following the passing of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, Desai was a strong contender for the position of Prime Minister again, only to be defeated by Indira Gandhi in 1966. He was appointed as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister in Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet, until 1969.
Following the Prime Minister revoking his portfolio of Finance, and nationalising fourteen of India’s largest banks, Desai quit the Gandhi Cabinet. At the time, the Indian National Congress split into two factions; INC(Organisation) and INC(Ruling), with the latter being formed by Indira Gandhi.
Morarji Desai lost yet again, in a landslide victory to Indira Gandhi in the General Elections of 1971. However, he was elected as a member of the Lok Sabha. During the Emergency; after Indira Gandhi was convicted of electoral fraud, Desai and other opposition leaders were jailed by Gandhi’s government. The anti-corruption wave led by Jayaprakash Narayan, and the anti-emergency wave of 1977, caused the Congress to lose to the Janata Alliance (Janata Party) in the General Elections of 1977. As leader of the party, Morarji Desai became the first non-Congress Prime Minister of India.
Here are a list of achievements of the government under Prime Minister Morarji Desai.
I. 44th Amendment – Formally ending Emergency
As Prime Minister, the first task for Moraji Desai was to formally end the state of emergency called by Indira Gandhi’s government in the period between 1975 and 1977. Media-censorship was removed, and controversial executive decrees that were issued during the emergency were repealed.
The 44th Amendment to the Constitution of India was passed after revocation of the Emergency, by the Morarji Desai government. Many of the anti-democratic provisions of the 42nd Amendment to the Constitution during Emergency, were annulled with the passing of the following amendment.
II. Foreign Policy – Re-instating Non-Alignment
The Morarji Desai government saw a decline in the healthy relationship India had fostered with the USSR, under the Indira Gandhi government. The Soviets had a huge stake in India, both politically and economically. The Desai government caused the annulment of the fifteen year Friendship Treaty between India and Russia, stating that India’s foreign policy would revert to ‘genuine’ non-alignment and that India would not allow previous agreements to come in the way of friendly relations with other countries.
However, the USSR was persistent to foster ties with the Indian government, and Desai realised that the Soviet connection was too important to sever, despite the Prime Minister’s anti-communist leanings. A series of three agreements were signed in regards to economic co-operation and aid, between the two nations.
China was one of the first country to openly voice its approval of Indira Gandhi’s defeat in March 1977, and her subsequent removal from power. The then Foreign Minister in Desai’s Cabinet, Atal Bihari Vajpayee stated after his attendance at the United Nations General Assembly, that India welcomed steps towards the normalisation of Indo-China ties.
The late Vajpayee also pointed out that while no ‘dramatic breakthrough’ had been made in normalising Sino-Indo ties at the time, the original rift between the two countries perceptibly lessened.
While relationships with the United States of America worsened during the time of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, India warmed up to the USA under the Desai government. President Jimmy Carter‘s visit two-day visit to India, on 27th November 1978, was a major milestone in cementing Indo-US ties.
Carter stated that he included India in his eight-nation tour because according to him, India is country which re-affirmed its commitment to democracy. He also affirmed the USA’s respect for India’s policy of genuine non-alignment.
III. Démonétisation of 1,000, 5,000 and 10,000 Rupee notes
In 1978, when Morarji Desai got elected into Premiership, the government of India issued demonetisation of 1000, 5000 and 10000 rupee notes in a bid to combat corruption and black money. Back then, a Rs.1000 note could buy about 5 square feet of real estate space in south Bombay.
Hoarding of money would take place, as people did not want to deposit their high denomination notes in banks as they feared income tax problems.
On 16th January 1978, the government passed the The High Denomination Bank Notes (Demonetisation) Act 1978; which declared that high value notes would cease to be legal tender at the close of banking hours on that day, and that all banks and treasuries of the government would remain closed for transactions from the next day. Any contravention, including false declaration by depositors, was made punishable by law- with a fine or three-year prison term.
Gold and commodity prices fell sharply, but the impact was limited.
IV. Refusing USA’s involvement in nuclear program
Prime Minister Morarji Desai played a crucial role in India’s nuclear program after it was targeted by major nuclear powers after conducting a surprise nuclear test, under the Indira Gandhi government in 1974.
Since the tests in 1974, Desai decided to keep India’s nuclear reactor stating, “They will never be used for nuclear bombs.”
In 1977, the Carter administration in the US offered to sell heavy water and uranium to India for its nuclear reactors. However, it required American on-site inspection of nuclear material. Desai declined stating the contradictory stance of USA in light of its own nuclear program.
Morarji Desai, resigned from Premiership in 1979 and retired from politics altogether. In the two years that he took office, India witnessed a fuelled growth in its foreign policy. Ties were strengthened with USA, China, USSR and Pakistan.
However, he facilitated the shutting down of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), India’s external intelligence agency. B. Raman, the former head of the Counter-Terrorism division of R&AW; revealed in an informal discussion that Desai indiscreetly informed Pakistan’s Chief Martial Law Administrator, General Zia Ul-Haq, that India was well aware of Pakistan’s secret nuclear development at Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) in Kahuta.
The intelligence was gathered by R&AW forces in the region. Acting on this ‘tip-off’, Pakistan’s intelligence forces eliminated the R&AW forces in Kahuta. This incident further left India in the dark about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.
Desai, outlawed any ‘obscenities’ and ‘indecency’ displayed in theatrical movies, as Home Minister. He differed in opinion with the Socialist policies of Nehru, and was a staunch Gandhian; being pro-business, and in favour of free enterprise reforms.
Post retirement, he campaigned for the Janata Party in the General Elections of 1980, as a senior politician but did not contest in the elections himself. He spent his retirement years in Mumbai, and died on 10th April 1995 at age 99.