How Morarji Desai became Prime Minister ?

Enter Vol.

By Ravi Visvesvaraya Sharada Prasad

Elections to the Lok Sabha were held from 16 to 20 March 1977. The hastily cobbled together Janata Party obtained 298 seats, and together with its allies, won 345 seats. The ruling Congress party and its allies obtained 189 seats.

One of the last acts of the defeated Indira Gandhi government, as it submitted its resignation to acting President BD Jatti, was to end the Emergency.

Home Minister K Brahmananda Reddy went over to Rashtrapati Bhavan with the cabinet resolution ending the Emergency. Acting president BD Jatti detained Brahmananda Reddy as a hostage in Rashtrapati Bhavan until the notification was printed in the government gazette, which happened at 4 am. Jatti wanted to ensure that Sanjay Gandhi did not try any last minute tricks, and so he held the outgoing home minister as a hostage.

The rifts and contradictions in the hastily cobbled together Janata coalition became apparent even before it took office. Morarji Desai, Babu Jagjivan Ram, Chaudhary Charan Singh, and Chandra Shekhar, all claimed that they should become prime minister.

My maternal uncle, KS Radhakrishna, head of the Gandhi Peace Foundation and the closest aide of JP Loknayak Jaya Prakash Narayan, together with his fellow Sarvodaya associates of Mahatma Gandhi, Narayanbhai Desai, Siddharaj Dhaddha, and Govind Rao Deshpande, made Morarji Desai the prime minister, even though Jagjivan Ram and Charan Singh had greater numbers.

Although the erstwhile Bharatiya Jana Sangha faction had obtained 102 MPs out of 345 in the Janata coalition, they did not stake a claim for the prime ministership, and preferred a low key wait and watch strategy.

Even though his Congress for Democracy had won only 28 seats, Babu Jagjivan Ram got 102 MPs belonging to the erstwhile Bharatiya Jana Sangh, as well as 35 MPs belonging to the Socialist bloc, to support his claim. And Jagjivan Ram of course had the total support of all the Harijans and Dalits across the nation.

Most importantly, Jagjivan Ram managed to persuade Chandra Shekhar to drop his own claim and support him instead. Jagjivan Ram also managed to obtain the support of George Fernandes and NG Goray, and he naturally had the support of the stalwarts of his own Congress for Democracy, Hemavati Nandan Bahuguna and Nandini Sathpathy.

Chaudhary Charan Singh rallied his support base among the farmers, and the Jats. It became clear that Charan Singh commanded the support of the second largest chunk of the newly elected MPs, after Jagjivan Ram.

My maternal uncle KS Radhakrishna and his three fellow Sarvodaya Gandhians were of the opinion that either Jagjivan Ram or Charan Singh as prime minister would be disastrous to the nation. The massive corruption of Jagjivan Ram was well known, and there were numerous questions over Charan Singh. Charan Singh and Jagjivan Ram had detested each other for decades, and if either was made prime minister, the other would immediately try to pull him down.

KS Radhakrishna, head of the Gandhi Peace Foundation, and the closest advisor of Loknayak Jaya Prakash Narayan, and his three fellow Sarvodaya Gandhians determined that the best person to be prime minister was Morarji Desai. Not only was Morarji Desai a highly experienced politician and an outstanding administrator, he had the strongest moral claim, because it was his fast unto death which led to the fall of the Chimanbhai Patel government in Gujarat in February 1974. Morarji Desai was near death, and Indira Gandhi had to concede defeat, and place the Gujarat assembly in suspended animation, and dismiss Chimanbhai Patel.

Further, Morarji Desai had been in solitary confinement from the very first hour of the Emergency till the day elections were declared. He had firmly resisted all offers from Indira Gandhi of a rapprochement, unlike many other opposition members.

The problem was that Morarji Desai was disliked by most of his contemporaries because of his arrogance, ambition, obstinacy, and sermonizing, which is why the Syndicate had worked to ensure his defeat after the deaths of both Jawaharlal Nehru in 1964 and Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1966. 

The hatred between Jagjivan Ram and Morarji Desai dated back to 1960, when they had been involved in a bitter power struggle while in Nehru’s cabinet, to be declared as the number two to Jawaharlal Nehru. Jagjivan Ram then had even asked Indira Gandhi for her support. But both Jagjivan Ram and Morarji Desai were eased out under the Kamaraj Plan in 1963.

Most importantly, there had been strained relations between Morarji Desai and Jaya Prakash Narayan since 1950. Morarji Desai was six years older than Jaya Prakash Narayan, and he resented the moral authority and saintly aura of his junior. Morarji Desai considered himself as the rightful successor to Jawaharlal Nehru, and he resented Nehru’s wanting JP to succeed him as prime minister.

The strictly disciplined and methodical Morarji Desai thought that Jaya Prakash Narayan was a destructive anarchist, who vacillated all the time. Subramanian Swamy in 1974-75 persuaded Morarji Desai and Jaya Prakash Narayan to set aside their personal dislikes for the higher cause of defeating Indira Gandhi. 

Chandra Shekhar was very close to JP, and he too detested Morarji Desai. Jagjivan Ram played upon Chandra Shekhar’s dislike of Morarji. Jagjivan Ram persuaded Chandra Shekhar to withdraw from the contest, and instead support him.

The Sarvodaya Quartet also determined that Nanaji Chandikadas Amritrao Deshmukh should be the Deputy Prime Minister. The widely respected Nanaji Deshmukh of the RSS Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh had been second only to JP in leading the opposition to Indira Gandhi since 1974. It was he who persuaded the numerous squabbling factions to unite to form the Janata coalition. Nanaji Deshmukh had a high moral stature due to his decades of selfless social work, as well as a modern technocratic outlook, cultivated during his education at BITS Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani. The conciliatory and unifying Nanaji Deshmukh would be ideal to offset the drawbacks of the haughty Morarji Desai.

Confident that they had the support of at least 165 MPs out of 345, Jagjivan Ram and Hemavati Nandan Bahuguna pressed for an open election.

My maternal uncle KS Radhakrishna and his three fellow Sarvodaya Gandhians persuaded Jagjivan Ram and HN Bahuguna that an open election would be divisive for the newly formed Janata coalition. They reminded them that the Congress party election of January 1966, in which Indira Gandhi had defeated Morarji Desai 355-169 for the prime ministership, had set into motion the rifts which led to the Congress party splitting in 1969.

KS Radhakrishna, together with his fellow Sarvodaya associates of Mahatma Gandhi, Narayanbhai Desai, Siddharaj Dhaddha, and Govind Rao Deshpande, impressed upon JP Jaya Prakash Narayan to rise above his personal dislike of Morarji Desai, and endorse him for the prime ministership. A magnanimous JP readily agreed, because he too felt that Morarji was the best qualified candidate, even though Morarji was universally disliked.

Time was running out, because the new government had to be in place by the evening of 24 March 1977. On the evening of 23 March 1977, KS Radhakrishna carried out a fait accompli by announcing to the press that Acharya JB Jivatram Bhagwandas Kripalani and Loknayak JP Jaya Prakash Narayan would announce the name of the prime minister and the composition of the cabinet at noon the next day at his residence.

Each of the 345 newly elected MPs would give a note to Acharya Kripalani and JP indicating whom they supported for the prime ministership, as well as for the other cabinet portfolios. There would be no open election, and the final decision would be that of JP and Acharya Kripalani alone.

My maternal uncle, KS Radhakrishna, together with his fellow Sarvodaya associates of Mahatma Gandhi, Narayanbhai Desai, Siddharaj Dhaddha, and Govind Rao Deshpande, worked throughout the night to ensure a unanimous consensus in favour of Morarji Desai. They had excellent credibility because of their high moral stature, and their being above the lures of political office. All the MPs knew that both JP and Acharya Kripalani would abide by their advice.

The Sarvodaya Quartet informed all the MPs that Jaya Prakash Narayan strongly favoured Morarji Desai, heavily emphasizing that Jagjivan Ram had held a comfortable cabinet post all through the Emergency, while the rest of them had struggled in jail. Further, the corruption of Jagjivan Ram was heavily underlined, as well as the fact that it was he who had sponsored the Emergency legislations in parliament.

Chaudhary Charan Singh was provoked into issuing a statement that if Jagjivan Ram was elected as the prime minister, then Charan Singh and all his supporters would immediately leave the Janata coalition. 

Because of the tension, Charan Singh developed chest pains, and had to be admitted to Willingdon hospital. During those few hours when he was being given a medical check up, he was out manoeuvred by the Sarvodaya Quartet, who emphasized to all the MPs that Charan Singh had been released from prison as early as March 1976, after tendering an abject apology to Indira Gandhi.

KS Radhakrishna, Narayanbhai Desai, Siddharaj Dhaddha, and Govind Rao Deshpande first tried to persuade Chandra Shekhar to drop his support for Jagjivan Ram, and instead support Morarji Desai. But Chandra Shekhar, who detested Morarji Desai, refused to do so.

The four Sarvodaya Gandhians then met Lal Krishna Advani. Advani told them that the Jana Sangh group was supporting Jagjivan Ram only because they were under the impression that Jagjivan Ram was the choice of JP. The Sarvodaya Quartet informed Advani that, on the contrary, the large-hearted JP supported Morarji Desai in spite of their mutual antipathy. The four of them then offered three senior cabinet positions to the Jana Sangha faction, including the deputy prime ministership to Nanaji Deshmukh. 

The four Sarvodaya Gandhians then met Nanaji Deshmukh, who too told them that the RSS Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha was supporting Jagjivan Ram only because they were under the impression that Jagjivan Ram was the choice of JP. The Sarvodaya Quartet informed Nanaji Deshmukh that JP had risen above his dislike of Morarji to endorse him as the best choice, and they offered Nanaji Deshmukh the deputy prime ministership, and two other senior cabinet positions to the Jana Sangha faction.

The Sarvodaya Quartet then met Biju Patnaik, who told them that if Jagjivan Ram was made the prime minister, then both he and Charan Singh would immediately walk out of the Janata coalition.

The four Sarvodaya Gandhians then met Atal Behari Vajapayee of the Jana Sangha. Vajpayee, who knew how much the puritanical Morarji Desai detested him because of his libertine lifestyle, drew a hard bargain. Vajpayee emphasized that 91 of the 102 Jana Sangha MPs were under his total control, and that he himself had a strong claim to be prime minister, or at least the deputy prime minister instead of Nanaji Deshmukh.

The Sarvodaya Quartet hinted to Vajpayee that if he did not support Morarji Desai, then all this information would be made public. However, even after the meeting, they could not be certain of what Vajpayee would do.

At noon on 24 March 1977, the newly elected MPs began to assemble at the Rouse Avenue residence of my maternal uncle, KS Radhakrishna, to convey their choices to JP and Acharya Kripalani. JP sprung a shock by insisting that Subramanian Swamy sit together with him and Acharya Kripalani while they ascertained the views of each MP. It was Subramanian Swamy who, in 1974, had persuaded JP and Morarji to set aside their mutual antipathy and work together for the larger cause of dethroning Indira Gandhi.

There was still no certainty that Morarji Desai would be named in preference to Jagjivan Ram and Charan Singh. The Sarvodaya Quartet knew that they could not depend on Atal Behari Vajpayee and his 91 MPs to support Morarji Desai. They were also puzzled by JP asking Subramanian Swamy to sit together with him and Acharya Kripalani.

That is when the four Sarvodaya Gandhians decided to enlist the help of the wily manipulators Chandra Bhanu Gupta and Raj Narain, to work on Chaudhary Charan Singh, who had been admitted to Willingdon Hospital with chest pains.

CB Gupta and Raj Narain rushed to Willingdon Hospital and told Charan Singh that his enemy Jagjivan Ram was minutes away from being elected as prime minister. They added that the deputy prime minister would be his nemesis Hemavati Nandan Bahuguna.

Charan Singh hated HN Bahuguna, his arch enemy for decades in Uttar Pradesh politics, even more than he hated Jagjivan Ram. CB Gupta and Raj Narain told Charan Singh that he had only a few minutes left to prevent the anointing of Jagjivan Ram and Bahuguna, and that he could do so only by himself withdrawing from the contest, and supporting Morarji Desai instead.

CB Gupta and Raj Narain immediately dictated a letter purporting to be from Charan Singh, and got him to sign it. This letter addressed to JP said that Charan Singh would prefer to go back to being jailed by Indira Gandhi rather than work under Jagjivan Ram and Bahuguna, and that he was withdrawing from the contest and transferring his support to Morarj Desai. For good measure, the two added several sentences highly praising Morarji Desai and castigating Jagjivan Ram for being a cabinet minister during the Emergency, and these two forced Charan Singh to append his signature.

CB Gupta and Raj Narain drove at breakneck speed from Willingdon Hospital to the residence of my maternal uncle. They interrupted the MPs filing past JP and Acharya Kripalani, and dramatically read out the letters which had been signed by Charan Singh, transferring his support to Morarji Desai.

Subramanian Swamy later recounted: “I was there with JP when Vajpayee came running—panting for breath—and expressed his support to Morarji. Jaya Prakash Narayan turned towards me and winked his gleaming eyes and smiled. Poor Jagjivan Ram was not aware of these developments.”

Without waiting for all the MPs to complete conveying their preferences to JP and Acharya Kripalani, Chandra Bhanu Gupta rushed outdoors and announced to the huge press corps anxiously waiting outside that JP and Acharya Kripalani had unanimously decided on Morarji Desai, with  Jagjivan Ram and Charan Singh to hold the heavyweight portfolios of defence and home. 

Jagjivan Ram, HN Bahuguna, George Fernandes, and Ram Dhan threw a furious tantrum at being outwitted, telling the assembled press persons that this was a murder of democracy.

JP, after consulting with Chandra Shekhar, quickly wrote out a letter apologizing to Jagjivan Ram and HN Bahuguna and persuaded them to join Morarji Desai’s cabinet.

To reign in Morarji Desai, JP also announced that Chandra Shekhar, who had been in jail throughout the Emergency, in spite of being a Congress MP, would be the president of the Janata Party. Chandra Bhanu Gupta, Nanaji Deshmukh, and George Fernandes immediately endorsed Chandra Shekhar as the party president. Chandra Shekhar was very close to JP, and Morarji Desai and Chandra Shekhar detested each other. 

NK Seshan, secretary to Indira Gandhi, then remarked to my father HY Sharada Prasad that choosing Chandra Shekhar to head the Janata party was an excellent decision. My surmise is that JP, who had found himself entangled in the tentacles of the RSS Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha, chose Chandra Shekhar as party chief to curb the power of the RSS over the Janata government.

Nanaji Deshmukh, who was instrumental in uniting the various parties together, and who was second only to JP in leading the opposition to Indira Gandhi, declined the offer to become the deputy prime minister and industry minister. Instead, at the moment of his greatest triumph, Nanaji Deshmukh retired from public life, to concentrate on social work in a remote village.

Subramanian Swamy was supremely confident that he would be made finance minister. But Swamy’s bitter enemy in the Jana Sangha, Atal Behari Vajpayee, who became foreign minister, saw to it that Subramanian Swamy did not get any ministerial berth at all, not even a minister of state post.

Instead, the experienced financial administrator Morarji Desai picked the retired ICS officer and right-hand man of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Hirubhai Mulljibhai Patel, a former home secretary and defence secretary, to be his finance minister.

It has always been a surprise to me as to how Atal Behari Vajpayee resurrected his political career in March 1977, after his ignominious role during the Emergency. Vajpayee, who was in ill health, had spent most of the Emergency under parole in his residence, after giving an undertaking to Indira Gandhi in September 1975 that he would not oppose the Emergency; he had even indicated to her that he was prepared to sever his links with the RSS.

In the last week of December 1976, Vajpayee had visited Om Mehta, the minister of state for home and the right hand man of Sanjay Gandhi. On his return from this meeting with Om Mehta, Vajpayee ordered the student activists of ABVP Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad to tender an unconditional apology to Indira Gandhi.

There is also evidence that Vajpayee was prepared to reveal the whereabouts of RSS and Jana Sangha activists who were still underground, such as Subramanian Swamy and Madhavrao Muley, and  get them arrested by Indira and Sanjay Gandhi.

In spite of his leading role in opposing Indira Gandhi throughout the Emergency, and his close association with both JP Jaya Prakash Narayan and Morarji Desai, Subramanian Swamy found himself completely castrated by Atal Behari Vajpayee, who emerged from ignominy to the highest posts. The only time Subramanian Swamy could ever become a minister was during the short-lived government of Chandra Shekhar in 1990-1991.

Written by Ravi Visvesvaraya Sharada Prasad 

(The opinion expressed within the content are solely the author’s and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the website or its affiliates)


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