DESAI, MORARJI (1896–1995), prime minister of India (1977–1979). Born in 1896, Morarji Ranchodji Desai began his political career by taking part in the Indian Nationalist Congress's freedom struggle against British rule. Like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, Desai spent many years in British jails for his part in the civil disobedience movement. He was a Gujarati Hindu from the Bombay presidency province of British India, which included the present-day states of Gujarat and Maharashtra. A strict vegetarian expounding high moral values, Desai was a staunch Gandhian in his philosophy and practice. Desai had his early education in Gujarat and then at Bombay University.
Desai rose to prominence when he became the Congress Party chief minister of the state of Bombay (formerly the Bombay presidency) from 1952 to 1956, before the province was divided into Gujarat and Maharashtra. He later held ministerial positions in Jawaharlal Nehru's Congress government and assumed that he was the rightful heir-apparent for the position of prime minister after Nehru's death in 1964. However, the Congress Party chose Lal Bahadur Shastri to become prime minister. When Shastri died in January 1966, Desai again sought to become prime minister, but was again bypassed, this time in favor of Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi. Desai became finance minister and deputy prime minister in Indira Gandhi's Congress government. He defected in 1969 to start a rival Congress Party, known as Congress (O), signifying that this new party represented the "old" Congress Party, which had brought freedom to India. The ruling Congress Party of Indira Gandhi then became identified as Congress (I), with the "I" standing for Indira. The public recognized the party of the daughter of Nehru as the continuation of the Congress Party of Nehru and Gandhi, and Indira Gandhi's Congress (I) was swept back to power in the elections of 1971, with a two-thirds majority in Parliament.
When Prime Minister Gandhi declared the "National Emergency," suspending the democratic Constitution and imposed authoritarian rule, Desai was imprisoned under the drastic provisions of the emergency. His Congress (O) Party then joined the alliance of opposition parties to form the Janata Party to challenge the Congress (I) Party in the national elections of March 1977. The Janata Party won, and Morarji Desai finally achieved his ambition, becoming prime minister of India. He was the first non-Congress Party prime minister of India, heading the Janata Party government from 1977 to 1979. Critics, however, claimed that having reached the pinnacle, he was content merely to sit on top of it. High inflation and intense rivalry among members of the Janata Party led to its defeat in the 1979 elections.
Often perceived as an eccentric, Desai gained notoriety when he claimed that he drank his own urine as a form of health therapy. He even wrote a book, titled Nature's Cure, about this odd belief. His bizarre practice was jokingly referred to by the public as "Morarji Cola." In 1974, before he became prime minister, he also published an autobiography, The Story of My Life. Moraji Desai died in 1995 at the age of ninety-nine.
Raju G. C. Thomas
Ayer, Subbier Appadurai. The Lone Sentinel: Glimpses of Morarji Desai. New Delhi: Popular Depot, 1960.
Desai, Morarji Ranchodji. In My View. New Delhi: Thacker and Company, 1966.
——. The Story of My Life. London: Pergamon, 1979. Karaka, D. F. Morarji Desai. Bombay: Times of India Press, 1965.