This will be the second hostage release after the truce between Israel and Hamas which came into force on November 24, was extended by two more days on Tuesday.
Morarji Desai was Prime Minister for a little over two years from 24 March 1977 to 28 July 1979. He passed away on 10 April 1995 at the age of 99. He practiced the Gandhian way of life in thought, word and deed. Apart from this he was a champion of free speech, liberty and democracy going to jail during the internal emergency of 1975-77.
It would be interesting on his death anniversary today to turn the spotlight on what his life was during those days when democracy was virtually extinguished and naked dictatorship stalked the land. On the early morning of 26 June 1975 he was arrested from his residence on Dupleix Road in Delhi and taken to the Sohna Tourist Centre in Haryana State. It was here and later at Taoru in the same province that he spent the next 19 months till his unconditional release upon the relaxation of the emergency and the announcement of general elections on 18 January 1977.
His routine during this period of detention displays his sense of detachment and stoic acceptance of the circumstances as they were. He operated his spinning wheel, did yoga, went for walks and did some reading and writing. It was during this period of detention that he held forth on the meaning of democracy in his autobiography (which he updated at that time). He said, “Even though legislators are elected for five years and the majority forms the government, they lose their mandate upon becoming corrupt, ineffective or oppressive. People have a right to ask them to resign and to hold fresh elections. If the people do not have the right (and it can be voiced only through the opposition), democracy becomes meaningless. In such circumstances the Government becomes dictatorial behind a democratic façade.”
His emergency detention had some interesting facets as well. He was offered release on certain conditions – by giving an undertaking to retire from active politics. Not surprisingly he showed the government emissary the door.
In his autobiography he mentions that he became friends with his guards and began teaching them English. During the first month of his imprisonment, he was not allowed to go out during day time and he immediately told the police that he was not a thief to be allowed out only after dark. For about one month he did not leave his room; this was how a person who had been Deputy Prime Minister in a Congress dispensation (1967-69) was treated as a MISA detenue.
He was later allowed to walk outside and even thought of taking up cycling which he fortunately gave up as he found mounting the bicycle at eighty no easy task.
On assuming the Prime Ministership, his government made several forays politically and economically. As Nani Palkhivala once remarked, “During Moraji’s tenure as Prime Minister, India witnessed the strange phenomenon of a fall in prices.” All over the world people were wondering how India managed to bring about a drop in prices, which was described by newspapers in bad English as negative inflation. The then Finance Minister, the late H.M. Patel should also be given credit along with Morarji for the reduction in the cost of living. Morarji was also straightforward in speech and never minced his words.
In Parliament and outside he would talk straight, be it on the merger of Sikkim which he opposed, or the nationalization of banks in 1969 which he regarded as a retrograde step done solely with political motives. Even though he was a votary of prohibition he could enjoy a wisecrack at his expense on the subject of alcohol consumption. The late Ram Jethmalani told him with reference to the party coup led by Charan Singh which brought down his government in 1979,
“Morarjbhai, have you realised that all those who betrayed you were teetotalers? I hope someday you will have a good word for those who occasionally drink.” He smiled and told Jethmalani, “Did I not inaugurate your election campaign?” Morarji was very regular with his press conferences which were held on a monthly basis; he never skipped them. He was known for answering questions with a counter question; once asked why he always answered a question with a counter question, he shot back, “Why not?!” On another occasion he said that it was his way of cracking a joke or indulging in humour. One feature of the Janata government was that the press was given freedom and could even lampoon those in power. The Desai administration was one of the most tolerant to criticism and allowed freedom of the press to the maximum extent.
The 44th Amendment Act enacted by the Janata government will stand out as Morarji Desai`s lasting contribution to strengthening democracy by laying down that an internal emergency could be declared only in the event of an internal armed rebellion and the fundamental rights were not to be suspended in such a state of emergency. This amendment also retained the words “secular” and “socialist” in the preamble which had been inserted by the 42nd Amendment enacted during the emergency. This also is an example of the ideology of Morarji who was above any communal bias.
Public figures like Morarji Desai fall in the category of those whose stature will go up as time passes. They were the builders of the nation.
(The writer is the author of the book Morarji Desai: A Profile in Courage.)