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Remembering Morarji Desai: The Principled Prime Minister

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By Arvindar Singh

Born on the leap year day of 29 February, 1896, Morarji Desai followed religiously the principles he believed in, both, in his political as well as personal life.

Once on being asked by the journalist, Mark Tully, about the auto urine therapy he practiced, he said that it was his principle to be able to talk about whatever he did and, therefore, he had no qualms about revealing the fact that he drank his urine.

The Janata Party government which he headed from 1977 to 1979 achieved a commendable record on the economic front when prices were brought to a level that ration shops became irrelevant, amended the Constitution by the 44th Amendment to make the declaration of emergency only due to internal armed rebellion and also contained the provision that fundamental rights would not be suspended even during an emergency. Thus, Morarji`s government provided a broad framework in the constitution that dictatorship should not enter through the backdoor as it did through the infamous emergency in June 1975. Mark Tully says, “The most obvious achievement of the Morarji Government was the re-establishment of the rule of law and passing legislation to prevent lawlessness from ever returning.”

Morarji Desai had long administrative experience as a Provincial Service Officer in the Raj, Chief Minister of the erstwhile Bombay State, and his tenures in the Centre as Commerce and, twice, Finance Minister. Thus, he came to South Block with immense knowledge of government working which he put to good use. His press secretary, the late HY Sharda Prasad has written of him, “He was a first-rate administrator, one of the best in free India. He could seize a problem or a file by its head and its tail. He asked the right questions and came to the right conclusions. He had too much common sense of the rules and precedents to be fooled by the bureaucracy… No future Prime Minister will think as he did, that people have to be ‘improved’ morally. They will rather play up to them.”

He had suffered detention during the 19 months of the emergency and done so stoically. He felt that the detention had helped him, both, mentally and physically.

Though he at times could sometimes give acerbic replies at press conferences and press interviews, he was a believer in independence of the fourth estate and never missed his monthly press conference. It is a fact that in India today leaders who called a spade a spade and made an impact of profound consequence are not much remembered. Jayaprakash Narayan and Morarji Desai are two such examples. Nehru said of Morarji Desai in a letter to CD Deshmukh in April 1956, “There are very few people whom I respect so much for their rectitude, ability, efficiency and fairness as Morarji Desai.”

When asked to name the single most important achievement of the Janata Government taking over as it did from a dictatorial regime, Morarji said in an interview, “It was removing the sense of fear from the heart of the people. They were terrified by what they saw happening around them during the Emergency and they were too scared to come out openly. We changed all that. We brought the spirit of democracy back to the land.”

When he spoke of the ‘spirit of democracy’, he meant the term in the most intense sense. He meant an open and egalitarian society in which freedom of expression would be paramount. It is in the interest of India`s future that the principles of tall leaders like Morarji Desai be remembered and put into practice.

(Arvindar Singh is the biographer of former Prime Minister Morarji Desai. His book is entitled “Morarji Desai: A Profile in Courage”.)