Shri Morarji Desai was born on February 29, 1896 in Bhadeli village, now in the Bulsar district of Gujarat. His father was a school teacher and a strict disciplinarian. From his childhood, young Morarji learnt from his father the value of hard work and truthfulness under all circumstances. He was educated St. Busar High School and passed his matriculation examination. After graduating from the Wilson Civil Service of the then Bombay Province in 1918, he served as a Deputy Collector for twelve years.
In 1930, when India was in the midst of the freedom struggle launched by Mahatma Gandhi, Shri Desai, having lost his confidence in the British sense of justice, decided to resign from Government service and to plunge into the struggle. It was a hard decision to take but Shri Desai felt that ‘when it was a question of the independence of the country, problems relating to family occupied a subordinate position’.
Shri Desai was imprisoned thrice during the freedom struggle. He became a Member of the All India Congress Committee in 1931 and was Secretary of the Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee untill 1937.
When the first Congress Government assumed office in 1937 Shri Desai became Minister for Revenue, Agriculture, Forest and Co-operatives in the Ministry headed by Shri B.G. Kher in the then Bombay Province. The Congress Ministries went out of office in 1939 in protest against India involvement in the World War without the consent of the people.
Shri Desai was detained in the individual Satyagraha launched by Mahatma Gandhi, released in October, 1941 and detained again in August, 1942 at the time of the Quit India Movement. He was released in 1945. After the elections to the State Assemblies in 1946, he became the Minister for Home and Revenue in Bombay. During his tenure, Shri Desai launched a number of far-reaching reforms in land revenue by providing security tenancy rights leading to the ‘land to the tiller’ proposition. In police administration, he pulled down the barrier between the people and the police, and the police administration was made more responsive to the needs of the people in the protection of life and property. In 1952, he became the Chief Minister of Bombay.
According to him, unless the poor and the under privileged living in villages and towns enjoy a decent standard of life, the talk of socialism will not have much meaning. Shri Desai gave concrete expression to his anxiety by enacting progressive legislations to ameliorate to the hardships of peasants and tenants. In this, Shri Desai’s Government was far ahead of any other State in the country. And what was more, he implemented the legislation with an unswerving sincerity earning wide reputation for his administration in Bombay.
After the reorganisation of the States, Shri Desai joined the Union Cabinet as Minister for Commerce and Industry on November 14, 1956. Later, he took the Finance portfolio on March 22, 1958.
Shri Desai translated into action what he had professed in matters of economic planning and fiscal administration. In order to meet the needs of defense and development, he raised large revenues, reduced wasteful expenditure and promoted austerity in Government expenditure on administration. He kept deficit financing very low by enforcing financial discipline. He brought curbs on extravagant living of the privileged section of society.
In 1963, he resigned from the Union Cabinet under the Kamraj Plan. Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri, who succeeded Pt. Nehru as Prime Minister, pursuaded him to become Chairman of the Administrative Reforms Commission for restructuring the administrative system. His long and varied experienced of public life stood him in good stead in his task.
In 1967, Shri Desai joined Smt. Indira Gandhi’s cabinet as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister in charge of Finance. In July, 1969, Smt. Gandhi took away the Finance portfolio from him. While Shri Desai conceded that the Prime Minister has the prerogative to change the portfolios of colleagues, he felt that his self-respect had been hurt as even the common courtesy of consulting him had not shown by Smt. Gandhi. He, therefore, felt he had no alternative but to resign as Deputy Prime Minister of India.
When the Congress Party split in 1969, Shri Desai remained with the Organisation Congress. He continued to take a leading part the opposition. He was re-elected to Parliament in 1971. In 1975, he went on an indefinite fast on the question of holding elections to the Gujarat Assembly which had been dissolved. As a result of his fast, elections were held in June, 1975. The Janata Front formed by the four opposition parties and Independents supported by it, secured an absolute majority in the new House. After the judgement of the Allahabad High Court declaring Smt. Gandhi’s election to the Lok Sabha null and void, Shri Desai felt that in keeping with democratic principles, Smt. Gandhi should have submitted her resignation.
Shri Desai was arrested and detained on June 26, 1975, when Emergency was declared. He was kept in solitary confinement and was released on January 18, 1977, a little before the decision to hold elections to the Lok Sabha was announced. He campaigned vigorously throughout the length and breadth of the country and was largely instrumental in achieving the re-sounding victory of the Janata Party in the General Elections held in March, 1977 for the Sixth Lok Sabha. Shri Desai was himself selected to the Lok Sabha from the Surat Constituency in Gujarat. He was later unanimously elected as Leader of the Janata Party in Parliament and was sworn in as the Prime Minister of India on March 24, 1977.
Shri Desai and Gujraben were married in 1911. Of their five children, one daughter and a son are surviving.
As Prime Minister, Shri Desai was keen that the people of India must be helped to become fearless to an extent where even if the highest in the land commits a wrong, the humblest should be able to point it out to him. “No one, not even the Prime Minister”, he was repeatedly said “should be above the law of the land”.
For him, truth was an article of faith and not an expediency. He seldom allowed his principles to be subordinated to the exigencies of the situation. Even in the most trying circumstances, he stood by his convictions. As he himself observed,‘one should act in life according to truth and one’s faith’.