For Dehra Dun‘s itinerant author Arvindar Singh, India’s first non-Congress Prime Minister, Morarji Desai was a hero of a sorts. No wonder that in his Biography of Desai published under the title Morarji Desai: A Profile in Courage, Arvindar is much panegyric about him, and even overlooks many of his idiosyncratic traits. He believes that Morarji was the ‘first rate administrator and one of the best in free India’.

Even though some authors and political commentators called Morarji ‘remote and forbidding’, he says that “the real man was warm with a good sense of humour”. Arvindar is also the author of a full length monograph on Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw published by the United Service Institution (USI) that became a prescribed text for the Defence Services Staff College and many other books.

FROM a deputy collector in Ahmedabad in 1918 to India’s Prime Minister in 1977 had been a long and turbulent journey for one born in the family of a village school teacher in the erstwhile state of Bhavnagar in Gujarat. Oldest of the six siblings, Morarji was barely 15 when his father died, and he willy-nilly became the family’s bread winner.

There were quite a few ups and downs in his chequered political career. He was successively the Home minister and chief minister of Bombay which then included the entire present Maharashtra and Gujarat and even other areas of Karnataka. He also held senior ministerial positions in the cabinets of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi in Delhi.

The author raises many questions. Quoting Sir Mark Tully, he writes that “India’s history would certainly have been different if Morarji had been chosen to be the Prime Minister in 1964 as a successor to Nehru. Neither dynastic politics would then have developed nor the internal democracy within the Congress undermined. Further, the autonomy of the Constitutional Institutions would have been maintained and the Rule of Law upheld.” Another question often asked was, “If Morarji was allowed to complete his full tenure as the Prime Minister of the Janata government in 1979, India would today have had a robust two-party parliamentary democracy.”

However, an unfortunate internecine struggle for power had erupted in 1979 within the Janata Party leading to the resignation of top leaders such as Biju Pattnaik, George Fernandes, HN Bahuguna et al. Taking advantage of those internal dissensions in the Janata Party, the Congress Leader of the Opposition Y.B. Chavan had moved a motion of ‘No-Confidence’ on which voting was to take place on 16 July 1979. Morarji was confident that the ‘No-Trust’ move would fail and the government should survive. But overnight developments tilted the balance, and it became quite obvious that the government would not survive the ‘No-Confidence’ motion. Accordingly, after consultations with his colleagues, Morarji tendered his resignation as the Prime Minister of India a day earlier on the evening of 15 July.

Yet another oft-asked question was, “If Morarji Desai’s government had continued, India would have developed cordial and friendly relations with Pakistan.” Already there were enough indications in that direction since President Zia-ul-Haq had felt ‘quite assured with Morarji’s genuine desire for peace between the two countries’. The relations between the two neighbours had become so warm and cordial that Gen Zia’s government had even conferred upon Morarji Desai the ‘Nishan-e-Pakistan’, its highest civilian award, for his ‘outstanding contribution to Indo-Pak relations’.

Once the ice was broken, Morarji and Zia regularly kept in touch on phone. The unexpected collapse of the Janata Party government, however, brought to naught all those plans for friendship, and Zia never had had the same friendly equation with the succeeding government of Indira Gandhi. Morarji’s government also had got on ‘famously well’ with other neighbours, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan. He had also renewed relationships with China. In short, if the author is to be believed, everything was hunky-dory during Morarji’s tenure with India’s neighbourly policy.

The author had had a fairly extensive conversation in 1984 with Morarji Desai at his Marine Drive apartment in Mumbai that had given him, ‘insights into Morarji’s multifaceted persona and many facets of his character such as his principles, ideals and ideologies, his views on various issues like prohibition and so on and so forth.’

Morarji possessed certain in-bred moral traits, and strictly adhered to those. He did not mince words even on issues of realpolitik and called a spade a spade. No wonder then that he had unequivocally opposed the action of the previous government in unilaterally occupying Sikkim despite the fact that his was the lone dissenting voice even in his own party. Were Morarji alive today, he would have most probably opposed the Modi government’s revocation of Article 370 in Jammu & Kashmir.

In Morarji’s otherwise unblemished career, he was once called a CIA mole during the four years of President Johnson administration. Hardly anyone believed that a man of Morarji’s spotless reputation would stoop so low for a paltry $ 20,000. Of course, he had vociferously denied the allegation as a ‘slur on the country, which the government should deny’.

Morarji was rather frugal with his meals and routinely took only uncooked food and milk twice a day that comprised fresh/dry fruits, cottage cheese, cucumber, carrot etc in small quantity. Morarji’s frugality was also much evident in the fact that he used postcards for his personal correspondence rather than postal envelopes.

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I wonder if the author – a sundowner himself – would agree with Morarji’s platitude that ‘the drinking is not only worse than a crime but is the mother of all crimes’. Morarji had also opined that ‘a drunkard hardly has a character.’ I have lived in Gujarat for a number of years and know firsthand that the policy of prohibition there was counterproductive. Instead it had made drinking more tempting like the ‘forbidden fruit’, and converted even teetotalers into pucca addicts. Worse, it had created a network of liquor mafias that specialized in supplying illicit, injurious and adulterated liquor to the poorer section of the populace. There was also and still is a more sophisticated liquor mafia that would deliver at one’s doorsteps the choicest bottled Scotch whisky, of course at a price.

The special attractions of the Book are the ‘tributes’ paid to Morarji by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Nani A. Palkhivala given as Appendices, and the Foreword by Sir Mark Tully. Vajpayee refers to Morarji’s reputation for being somewhat ‘unbending’ and felt that he was certainly ‘uncompromising’ even on small matters. And it was perhaps that uncompromising attitude of his that ultimately led to the fall of the Janata Party government.

Likewise, in his tribute Nani Palkhivala has written that ‘the distinguishing feature of Morarji’s tenure as the Prime Minister was that our relations with Pakistan and Bangladesh had reached the heights of friendliness and goodwill.’ Desai also did not approve of the forcible occupation of Sikkim by the previous government, and had called it wholly unjustified and not worthy of a great nation like India’.

Tully in his Foreword says that Morarji’s habit of ‘drinking a small quantity of his urine everyday made him appear eccentric to many.’ Morarji’s obsession with prohibition was not popular with the elite….and as such he was tended to be written off as an oddball or perhaps a maverick.

Arvindar has done a diligent and meticulous job in tracing Morarji’s life from cradle to grave. Morarji’s Profile in Courage tells of many major and even some minor incidents in his life. It is written in the genre of a biography sympathetic to the late Prime Minister rather than a critical commentary on his life. Be that as it may, the Biography is extremely readable and should be of interest not only to the general reader but also to those interested in reading the story of some of the most turbulent years in India’s recent history. .

Morarji Desai – A Profile in Courage
Author: Arvindar Singh
Publisher: Niyogi Books

Raj Kanwar is a Dehra Dun-based veteran journalist & author.