The Prime Ministers

Hot-line to God

WHEN Morarji Desai finally became Prime Minister, at the age of eighty-one, most people thought he was a changed man, he had shed his angularities and rigidities; he was no longer the dogmatic man that he had been. At first glance, he did look a little mellowed, a little more accommodative than he had been in the late 1960s. But you had only to scratch the surface and the crotchety old Morarji popped out.

Prime Minister Desai’s very first Press conference on March 24, 1977, revealed how much he had ‘changed’. “Are you moving into 1, Safdarjang Road?” a journalist asked him. That was where his predecessor, Indira Gandhi had lived as Prime Minister. “Why do I have to move there?” snapped Desai. “Is there any hallow attached to it?”(Just a few months later, Morarji moved to the house amid much fanfare.) “There is talk that you are going to topple several state governments. Will you approve of that?”“I am not going to topple any state government,” Morarji Desai said with a stiff upper lip. “But if they topple themselves what I am to do?”

“Sir, Jayaprakash Narayan has suggested that there should be a fresh poll for state assemblies where the Congress has lost (in the Lok Sabha elections of March 1977).” Desai: “No, no. If the governments there are legal governments, and they have the majority, how can we have fresh polls? It has to be done in the right manner. It has to be done in such a manner that we do not repeat what the last government had done.”A month later, Morarji Desai threatened to order fresh Lok Sabha polls if the Acting President, BD Jatti did not sign the government’s proclamation dissolving nine of the Congress-ruled states in the country.

The Janata caravan had started rolling with the return of Jayaprakash Narayan to Delhi on March 23, 1977, exactly two months after he had presided over the formal launch of the Janata party. On that day the leaders, most of them just out of various jails in the country, had gathered at 5 Dupleix Road close to the Raisina complex. They had got together to announce a new party. The atmosphere was electric with excitement, but not even in their wildest dream could the motley crowd gathered there could have imagined that a political transformation of such proportions could even take place in just about 60 days.

Some hours after Morarji Desai was sworn in as the Prime Minister, Barun Sengupta of the Ananda Bazar Patrika and I met him for an interview. He sat calm and serene on a takhat spinning on a portable charkha. On the wall behind him hung a serene portrait of Ramakrishna Paramhansa. It was no longer going to be difficult for news persons to get to the Prime Minister, he told us. No walls, no barriers. “I want to meet everybody who comes to me. How else would I know what is happening in the country?” How would he treat Indira Gandhi, I had asked. Would he forget and forgive? “Most certainly,” he said. Inquiry commission against her? “Certainly not. One must be magnanimous, not merely just.” Somehow, for that moment, I had seemed to like the man, warts and all.

Part of Desai’s queer mental make-up must have come from his Anavil Brahmin ancestors, “known for their plain-speaking, somewhat hot tempers, and independence.” Part of it came from the deeply religious atmosphere of his family, and his avid reading of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Panchtantra — “My views about morality were formed through these books,” Desai wrote. The financial problems of his early life and the ‘hard jolts’ he got when he was a mere boy must have contributed to the making of his personality. When he was just 15, his father had thrown himself into a well and died, leaving on him the burden of a large family—his grandmother, mother, three younger brothers, two sisters, and the little girl he had been married to, just three days after his father’s death.

To all this was added the gnawing sense of having been wronged again and again in his career. As a young Deputy Collector in the late 1920s, he had felt wronged by his British Collector, whose adverse remarks on his character roll finally made him decide to quit the service. He had felt deeply hurt when Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi decided in 1959 to split the bilingual Bombay state. After Pant died in 1961, the issue of deputy leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party came up, and Desai had “no doubt” that Nehru had manoeuvred to keep him out of the post. Until he was in Bombay, Desai had enjoyed the complete trust of Jawaharlal and had come to believe that he was the “most confidential adviser” of the Prime Minister. But after he moved to the Centre, Nehru’s attitude towards him changed. His “analysis” of Nehru’s mind led him to the conclusion that it was “Jawaharlalji’s practice not to have anybody as an adviser for more than three years.” Another time Morarji was convinced of a “conspiracy” against him was when Nehru used the Kamaraj Plan to remove him from the cabinet. Desai had for long regarded himself as Jawaharlal’s logical heir. Many others thought too. On his first trip abroad in March 1958, a London newspaper had greeted him with the headline: ‘Nehru’s heir comes West’, and in America he was often introduced as India’s next Prime Minister.

When Nehru died, Desai was all set to step into his shoes. An observant political commentator had noted: “While Nehru’s body was lying in state at Teen Murti House to enable people to pay their last respects to him, and the arrangements for crowd control and cremation were discussed, Desai radiated the certitude and authority he habitually carried, and went round giving instructions about various matters.” But even before Nehru’s funeral pyre had got cold, Desai was informed, through a special messenger, that if he accepted Lal Bahadur Shastri as the Prime Minister, he would be made the Deputy Prime Minister.

DESAI had replied curtly: “I do not approve of making any such bargains.” Ultimately, Morarji chose not to contest. “If I was elected in such circumstances,” he said later, “it would have been very difficult for me to do my work…all my energy would have been spent in meeting opponents.” But such fears did not stop him from contesting against Indira Gandhi. Morarji claimed to be a man of principles, and often described himself as the “instrument of God’s will”. Even so, he had not escaped his share of smear. His biggest black spot he owed to his son, Kantibhai Desai, who was widely described as the “Sanjay Gandhi of the Janata Government.”

The political ‘earthquake’ of March 1977 had also left the Russian leadership gasping. Everybody was saying that the new Government headed by Morarji Desai was pro-America and certainly the new ForeignMinister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, could be nothing but anti-Russia. India had been Russia’s most loyal, stable and powerful client in the Third World, and it would not be politic to let it slips into the American sphere of influence. Within two days of the election results, the Soviet official organ, Izvestia, published an article criticising Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian behaviour during the Emergency. The visits of Morarji Desai and Atal Behari Vajpayee to the Soviet Union in October 1977 allayed Russian fears to some extent, but they suspected that the gains made in India would be offset by the Janata Government’s tilt toward America. New friends had to be found in the new ruling party. Some old friends like Bahuguna and Nandini Satpaty had already gone over to the Janata, but new “vehicles” had to be spotted.

The first possible ally they made was the Socialist leader, Madhu Limaye, one of the ideologues of the Janata. He had not joined the government, but he was important in determining the policies and programmes of the party, not only by virtue of his being one of the general secretaries of the party (a highly rated position in the SU) but also because he had established himself as one of India’s most effective parliamentarians.

MADHU Limaye had studied deeply the politics and personality of Morarji Desai. Some months after Desai became the Prime Minister, Limaye had analysed some events in Morarji’s earlier days. In the late 1930s (except during the war years), BG Kher was the chief minister of Bombay. Between 1946-52, Desai had started emerging as the strong man of the government, and most people saw him as the ‘heir-apparent’, more so because Kher felt ‘exhausted in body and mind’ and did not contest the first general elections. As Morarji wrote in his autobiography, “By the end of 1951 it was almost certain that I would have to take the responsibility of forming a government in Bombay state.” Any honest politician, thought Limaye, who enjoyed the exercise of power—as Morarji obviously did—would have truthfully admitted that he relished the prospect. “But Morarji is Morarji. He considershimself a superman. He apprehended that he would ‘not be able to pursue the truth as chief minister’, for he doubted whether his colleagues would be ‘as devoted to truth as himself. His heading the government would, therefore, hinder his search for truth,’ Desai wrote.” Limaye had found it hard to get over the conceit and self-righteousness of Desai.

The ‘heir-apparent’ had lost the 1952 elections, by just 19 votes. His defeat should have given Moraiji a valid moral reason, felt Limaye, for not undertaking a responsibility which would obstruct his search for truth. But by some twisted reasoning Desai reached the opposite conclusion. “God had sent me this defeat,” Morarji wrote, “to make me understand my mistake, the mistake being to have entertained the thought of running away from the responsibility of heading the government.” How Limaye had laughed reading those lines to me!

“Morarjibhai,” he said, “had a hot-line between him and God. He would invoke God on the slightest pretext.”

Desai had claimed that he had accepted his defeat “cheerfully”. In fact he did not. He had insisted on a recounting of votes, which had not been accepted. Kher advised him to stand for re-election. Morarji said he did not ‘appreciate’ the suggestion. “If I could not win in the general elections,” he said, “it only showed God’s wish that I should not continue in the government. I should therefore get out of this kind of politics.”

But then God must have told him that this would amount to escaping from responsibilities. And so he had to find some other way. He made it clear that he would “yield” only under certain conditions: first, the Pradesh Congress Committee must “unanimously” agree to Kher’s suggestion that Desai should become the leader; and second, Jawaharlal Nehru and the Central Parliamentary Board, should also give their consent. In his constant “search for truth”, Morarji at one point discovered that his arrogance had been a factor in his defeat. So he resolved to shed arrogance. He must have tried hard, but others had not felt any change in Morarji, at least not Limaye.

“Whole pages of his autobiography are devoted to philosophical speculation on his electoral defeat and self-examination,” said Limaye, “but the result of all this was his decision to accept the suggestion of the Congress leaders. There was one hurdle. The constitution of the party laid down that only a member of the legislative assembly could be elected. Even a member of the Bombay legislative council could not be elected as leader. But a way out suggested itself. Constitutions are framed for the convenience of men and not vice versa! And if the man in question was the Sarvochcha himself devoted to the search for truth, why not amend the constitution?”

Nehru was flooded with protests from those opposed to the proposal. Nehru wrote to “us” (the Congress legislature party) that “since the outgoing party was going to be replaced by the newly elected party, the former should not amend the constitution in a hurry.” Morarji immediately replied to Nehru “explaining the whole position.” Of course, Morarji could not think of having an amendment made for his own sake! And so he requested that he should be relieved of the “responsibility of leading the government.”

“Jawaharlaji,” Morarji wrote with a sense of glee, “was quick to appreciate the difficulty and gave his permission and the amendment was duly made.” So the defeated Morarji was first elected to the council and in due course, as chief minister, he contested an assembly byelection and won it.

Dozens of politicians who have since followed that devious—and dubious—route to become Chief Ministers, and even the country’s Prime Minister, must be grateful to Morarji Desai for having caused that amendment in the party constitution, which was to become the accepted convention! Reacting to the criticism of some newspapers that the amendment was against “democratic principles,” Desai wrote in the second volume of his autobiography, in 1974: “I have not been able to understand even now, the propriety of such criticism.” Desai must then have got a direct communication from God to change his mind. In 1978, at a meeting of the Central Parliamentary Board of the Janata Party, he proposed a rule that a non-member of state legislature assembly should not be allowed to contest election as leader of any state legislature party. After the assembly elections in Maharashtra in 1978, there was a move to make Bapu Kaldate leader of the Janata legislature party. Desai opposed it. He said it was immoral for non-members of state assembly to become chief ministers. This barred the way for Bapu Kaldate.

Soon after the Janata government was formed, Madhu Limaye led a delegation of the Indo-Soviet Cultural Society to Moscow. He made quite an impression on the Kremlin leaders. On his return from Moscow, he began his battle with the RSS. The objective was clear: to topple the Desai government. Madhu started cultivating Charan Singh. In just about 10 days in March 1978 nearly half a dozen angry letters were exchanged between Singh and Desai. Charan Singh’s lead was Congress MP, NKP Salve who made a series of allegations against Kantibhai Desai.

Morarji Desai’s patience gave way. He told Charan Singh to resign from the government. Singh’s Sancho Panza, Health Minister Raj Narain, was also asked to quit for his behaviour in Shimla where he had violated Section 144 and attacked the Janata chief minister of Himachal Pradesh.

In a note submitted to the party’s national executive, George Fernandes had admitted that there had been a “gradual erosion” of the party and the government. “All of us are guilty of thinking and acting as members of the merging parties rather than as members of one political party.” Referring indirectly to the warring triumvirate at the top, Fernandes had called upon Morarji Desai, Charan Singh and Jagjivan Ram to “exercise jointly their political and moral authority to keep the party in shape…This we owe to the country, to the party, and to posterity. If they fail the consequences will be tragic for everyone…”

A very tall order for leaders who were chipping away at their own credibility, without any concern for the mounting disorder all around them. Harijans and Muslims were under attack in different parts of the country. Higher education had virtually collapsed: 47 universities had been closed for various periods between April 1977 and January 1978. In the factories during the same period, 1,363 strikes and 199 lockouts had resulted in a loss of production to the tune of Rs. 83 crore. But the leaders of the Janata Party were busy pulling one another down.

Desai was furious when he returned from abroad. Raj Narain had gone to the airport with attar (perfume) but when he wanted to apply it on Desai’s sherwani, he was brushed aside and given a mouthful. “You have been spreading a foul smell while I was abroad,” Morarji told him. Desai had not failed to see that it was he who was the real target. A day after submitting his resignation, Charan Singh expressed his relief “because in the government I was surrounded by many corrupt persons.” His expression of ‘relief’ was about as credible as Indira Gandhi’s ‘utter, utter relief’ on knowing that she had been defeated in Rae Bareli.

“These people cannot govern the country,” Indira Gandhi was now telling interviewers gleefully. Her son was calling them “jokers and monkeys”. Also delighted was the Russian lobby which felt encouraged by every discomfiture of the Janata Government. Madhu Limaye worked hard to build a bridge between Charan Singh and HN Bahuguna, who had for long been political enemies in Uttar Pradesh politics. Limaye convinced Charan Singh that with Bahuguna on his side he could make inroads into Muslim votes. As Chief Minister of UP, the clever politician from the Garhwal hills had gone out of his way to endear himself to the Muslims, from the Nawabs and Begums down to the poorest of them. He could speak Urdu fluently and recite sher-o-shaeri. The deal was finally struck when Charan Singh told Bahuguna, “Look, I have a son, but you know he is not interested in politics (Ajit Singh was then working in a computer company in the US). After me, all my following will be yours.”

Thereafter, Bahuguna got down to a rapprochement between Charan Singh and Morarji Desai. For its own reasons, the Jan Sangh component of the Janata was also anxious for a patch-up between the two. Though they had initially plumped for Morarji Desai because they thought he was a better bet to keep the government going, the Jan Sangh leaders were now worried about the possibility of Charan Singh quitting and thereby destabilising the government. Eventually, the Nanaji-Chandra Shekhar-Hegde combine succeeded in selling the idea of deputy prime ministership to Charan Singh. Morarji agreed, but decided he would promote Jagjivan Ram to deputy prime ministership along with Charan Singh. It was an old game which Jawaharlal Nehru had played on Morarji way back in 1961. When Charan Singh heard of it, he was in utter rage. “The issue of my joining the government stands closed — and closed finally.”

AND yet, within weeks, Charan Singh took oath as Deputy Prime Minister, along with Jagjivan Ram. Poor Raj Narain, who had done so much jumping and shouting for his leader was left high and dry. Right then he told his confidants that henceforth his sole objective would be to pull down the Desai Government. If needed, he would even ‘surrender’ to Indira Gandhi, he said.

The first big salvo of the Raj Narain-Madhu Limaye jehad was fired when the Jan Sangh men were thrown out of the Uttar Pradesh government. What had worried Morarji most was the volte face of Bahuguna. It was largely as a reaction to this that they decided to topple the Bihar government led by Karpoori Thakur, a strong supporter of Charan Singh. The last act in “Operation Morarji” started after the fall of Thakur and Devi Lal of Haryana. Raj Narain now had two strong allies, both of whom had supported Charan Singh in troubled times. Matters came to head on June 12 when Raj Narain was removed from the national executive of the Janata Party for one year as a punishment for his personal attacks on his party colleagues and his public criticism of the government policies.

The hawks in the Charan Singh camp were now breathing down the leader’s neck to quit the government and the party and revive his old Bharatiya Lok Dal. Charan Singh was in no mood to take risks, and his wife Gayatri Devi was constantly telling him a bird in hand was better than two in the bush… But politics moved fast, and by the evening of July 8, rats had started leaving the sinking ship. Five Lohiaite MPs quit the Janata Party and joined Raj Narain. Devi Lal went into action and got another five MPs to leave on the first day of Parliament session.

When the Lok Sabha met next morning, YB Chavan, the then leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party, introduced a censure motion against the government. He got no support from Indira Gandhi’s MPs. She had decided to vote against the government but her directive had not yet reached the House. It was only some hours later that her aide, CM Stephen announced support for Chavan’s motion. But even then nobody was taking the motion seriously. That evening, BP Maurya, a volatile Dalit leader who had joined Indira Gandhi’s bandwagon, had gone to 12 Willingdon Crescent to see her. He had found her almost in tears. “Mauryaji, I don’t know what will happen now,” she had said. “Urs (the Karnataka chief minister, who had been one of her main supporters) has left and people tell me you are also about to go…I’ll be convicted by the end of October…”“Yes, you will be convicted,” Maurya had said bluntly, and had left her feeling worse.

The safety of Sanjay Gandhi had become her main concern. Home Minister Charan Singh had devoted all his energy to preparing a case against Indira and Sanjay so that they could be put behind bars. When the Central Bureau of Investigation submitted a charge-sheet against the former Prime Minister, Charan Singh went to Morarji Desai who passed it unhesitatingly. On October 3, Mrs Gandhi was arrested on charges of indulging in corrupt practices while in office. The next morning, when she was produced before the magistrate, he declared there was virtually no case against her. She was out in triumph. It had proved a godsend for her.

But while she and her son were busy engineering the fall of the Desai government, Indira’s fears of further persecution remained. She had called Maurya again the next morning and asked him to “do something.” “Why aren’t you supporting YB Chavan’s no-confidence motion?” Maurya asked her. “No, no, that’s no good. It may be just good music, but nothing will come of it.”“I don’t agree, Madam, you should support it. The government will fall.” Mrs G was not willing to believe this, but Maurya had convinced her. He said if she promised to support Charan Singh the government would definitely fall. She was so anxious to get rid of the Janata government that she agreed. “But you’ll have to promise one thing, Madam.” “What?” “You’ll have to promise that you will not be the candidate for Prime Ministership.” She was taken aback, but said with great solemnity, “Mauryaji, not only now, throughout my life, I say on oath that I am not a candidate for prime ministership. But I should not be humiliated. That’s all I want.”“Not only you should not be humiliated, Madam, you should be respected. But you must never think of becoming the Prime Minister again.” “I say on oath, Mauryaji,” she repeated, “that I am not a candidate for prime ministership and will never be throughout my life, but only see that this government is defeated.”

Maurya then went and told Charan Singh that Mrs Gandhi was willing, but Charan Singh would not believe him. “She will deceive me,” he said. In any case, the wily Jat could see that unless he acted many of his followers would leave him.By July 10, the Janata Party’s majority in the Lok Sabha had shrunk to three, and Morarji was pressing Charan Singh to defend the government. In a heated exchange over the telephone, CharanSingh told Desai: “I shall be guided by my followers and do whatever they want me to do.”

Jagjivan Ram was once again girding up his loins. On July 11, he called the Janata MPs to his house for a tea party. About 70 of them turned up, but the number given out to the Press was 135. By that time the total strength of the party in the Lok Sabha had already come down to 260. The same evening the Congress for Democracy (CFD) met and some of the members suggested that the group should quit the Janata. But Jagjivan Ram had other ideas. “It would be a Machiavellian tactics to cross the floor at this point,” he said solemnly. He talked about political morality and said morality lay in going to the polls after resigning from the party. Bahuguna walked out of the meeting.

At the Janata Parliamentary Board meeting the next day, George Fernandes was to put forth the proposal that the Prime Minister should step down. Ram and Vajpayee, it had been decided earlier, would support the move. But Chandra Shekhar had once again refused to be a party to this, saying that he was in politics for ‘human dignity’ and if anybody came up with such a move he would throw him out of the party. George Fernandes did make the proposal, and Jagjivan Ram nodded his head in assent. Chandra Shekhar remained quiet. Morarji Desai stuck to his guns. Only 47 had so far left the party and the government could survive even up to 70 defections. That day Bahuguna left the party.

IN the night of July 14, Jagjivan Ram sent off his long letter to Desai, a virtual indictment of the government. Bahuguna had managed to wean away the Marxists, thereby tilting the balance against Desai. Ram told Bahuguna that he had sent his letter to Morarji. “But the word resignation is not there,” Bahuguna said curtly. “That will be done tomorrow,” Ram said.

Ram had gone to Desai and assured him that the issues raised in the letter would be thrashed out only after the censure motion was defeated. It was amazing in how many voices these politicians could talk at the same time. One explanation of Ram’s double-talk was that he was under the impression that as a last resort Desai would step down by himself and give the Kursi to him. Even so, the same day, after a visit to the Rashtrapati Bhawan, Jagjivan Ram told Chandra Shekhar that he was going to leave the party and the government. By then he got feelers from the Congress. But Ram got cold feet when he realised that while Indira Gandhi’s men had welcomed him to join the party, they had refused to make any commitments about making him the Prime Minister.
By the afternoon of July 15, Desai knew his ship was sinking. Even George Fernandes who waxed eloquent defending the government on Thursday had defected on Saturday. It was the last straw on the camel’s back. As Chandra Shekhar said later, “Had he (George) not resigned on that date, the government would not have fallen. I had a talk with George a day earlier and I did not get a hint that he was going to resign the next day…he was very firm that he would not resign from the government and the party.”

Morarji Desai drove to Rashtrapati Bhawan and submitted his resignation. g

Excerpted from Prime Ministers: Nehru to Vajpayee by Janardan Thakur,
Eeshwar Prakashan, New Delhi

Janardan Thakur started his career in journalism with the nationalist Patna daily, The Searchlight, in December 1959. In his long and distinguished career spanning the reign of each Prime Minister since Independence, Thakur reported from the thick of some of the most momentous contemporary events at home and afar—JP’s ‘total revolution’, the Emergency, the bristling emergence of Sanjay Gandhi, the fall and rise of Indira Gandhi and then the rise and fall of Rajiv, the Kremlin of Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Khomeini’s revolution in Iran, Ronald Reagan’s re-election in an America swinging Right, VP Singh’s ascent as a messiah with tainted magic and the rasping run to power of the BJP. Thakur’s journalism, from the very start, broke traditional moulds of reportage and writing, going beyond the story that meets the eye and into processes and personalities that made them happen. His stories on the Bihar famine of the mid-1960s and the manmade floods that ravaged the State were a sensation. He was perhaps alone in predicting defeat for Indira Gandhi in 1977 and again singular in exposing the corroded innards of the Janata Government that followed. A Jefferson Fellow at the East-West Center, Hawaii, in 1971, Thakur moved to New Delhi as a Special Correspondent for the Ananda Bazar Patrika group of publications in 1976. He went freelance in 1980 and turned syndicated columnist. In 1989-91, he was Editor of the fortnightly Onlooker, and The Free Press Journal. Thakur authored All The Prime Minister’s Men, probably the most successful of the crop of books that followed the Emergency. His All the Janata Men, the story of the men who destroyed the first non-Congress government in New Delhi, was equally successful.
He passed away on July 12, 1999.

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