Morarji Desai In The Right Perspective
In his column entitled “Encore” published in an English daily of March 6, 2011, under the heading “My Spat with Morarji Desai” former Foreign Minister K Natwar Singh has held forth against Morarji Desai who was Prime Minister of India from 1977 to 1979, during which period Natwar Singh represented the country as High Commissioner to Zambia.
Natwar Singh records that when Morarjibhai died in April 1995, “No comets were seen, no thunder, no hail, no storm happened.” I would advise Natwar Singh to go through the newspaper files of April-May 1995, particularly those of Maharashtra and Gujarat. He will find them full of touching tributes written straight from the heart about an able administrator and true Gandhian for whom hypocrisy was miles away from his personality. HY Sharda Prasad, who served as Desai`s press secretary, wrote in a tribute to him, “He was a first rate administrator one of the best in free India. He could seize a problem or file by its head and its tail. He asked the right questions and came to the right conclusions. He had too much common sense and knowledge of rules and precedents to be fooled by the bureaucracy.” Clearly Sharda Prasad`s apposite comments should lay any doubts at rest about the rather subjective picture that Natwar Singh has chosen to paint.
Natwar Singh holds that Desai`s knowledge of African affairs was abysmal. Again here we are unable to fathom on what basis he jumps to the conclusion. That a person of Morarji Desai`s proficiency and calibre should raise questions on state funding of terrorists by the then Zambian government and the fact that Natwar Singh was heaping undue praise on the Zambian administration only goes to show that all was not well in our High Commission at Lusaka. Singh also takes umbrage of the fact that Desai pulled him up for coming to New Delhi with a Zambian delegation without MEA approval. Undoubtedly, Singh is quite right when he states that a delegation headed by the Zambian Prime Minister should have been accompanied by the Indian High Commissioner, however, he should have made proper efforts to get MEA approval, which would not have been denied if ample notice had been given. Natwar Singh could have also obtained telephonic approval from Foreign Minister AB Vajpayee or Foreign Secretary Jagat Mehta.
Another aspect of Natwar Singh`s piece is personal. He bemoans the fact that when arrived at 1, Safdurjung Road, (the then Prime Minister`s residence) “elegance and style had departed”. For those raised in the ashram culture and who are votaries of the Gandhian philosophy of simple living and high thinking, “elegance and style” exist but of a different variety. This may not suit the author`s aesthetic tastes, but I feel it is a matter of pride when a certain type of Gandhian simplicity manifests itself at the abode of the Chief Executive of the country. I must confess that I never visited 1, Safadarjung Road when Morarji was the occupant, but I had visited his residences in Mumbai on many occasions, and I never found them lacking in either “elegance or taste”. Natwar Singh might feel that I lack “elegance and taste”. Maybe as an earthy Jat Sikh I could plead guilty of the charge!
Natwar Singh was busy as High Commissioner getting testimonials from foreign dignitaries like Kenneth Kaunda, the Zambian President, and expected the Prime Minister of India to give detailed replies to these testimonials! Morarji was obviously on the beam, when telling him not to be “needlessly sensitive” over the matter.
In the concluding part of his column, Natwar Singh states that Morarji Desai asked him to bring his wife (who was waiting for him in the car) to come inside and join them. This he stubbornly refused to do, on the pretext that his was an official and not a social call. This infuriated the Prime Minister who curtly told him to leave his residence. Natwar now states in retrospect that this was “quite improper”. Natwar Singh`s mother-in-law, the dowager Maharani of Patiala, Mohinder Kaur had been a member Morarji Desai`s party since the time of the Congress split in 1969. She remained a loyal supporter of him throughout the rest of his life. Therefore, it was only natural that he wanted to exchange pleasantries with the daughter of a senior party colleague who was also a Member of Parliament at the time.
Morarji Desai had a long innings as a freedom fighter and an administrator of high repute. He had his blind spots like prohibition to some extent, but he was a hard taskmaster and great believer in moral values and high principles. He had worked for 12 years as a Provincial Civil Service Officer in the Government of Bombay before joining the Independence movement in 1930. Throughout the Emergency he remained in solitary confinement in Haryana state, not once appealing for parole, in fact turning down the offer for a conditional release, point blank. “I knew I would be free only the day the elections are announced,” he often said. Thus, he successfully withstood the hideous fury of dictatorship which was prevalent during those years. In the parliamentary elections held in the aftermath of the Emergency, he led the combined opposition under the label of the Janata Party to victory and was named Prime Minister on March 24, 1977. His government will be remembered for its sound economic policies and foreign policy, particularly the well-grounded relations he sought to build with our neighbours especially Pakistan. A political coup in the summer of 1979 brought about the demise of his government. He is the only Indian recipient of the “Nishan-e-Pakistan”, the highest civilian honour of that country.
NA Palkhivala, the eminent jurist, once described him (quoting Milton) as a person who remained “unmoved, unshaken, unseduced, unterrified” throughout his life. Most of his countrymen will view him similarly. Unfortunately K Natwar Singh stands in a minority.
The writer is the author of the book, “Morarji Desai: A Profile in Courage” (a biography of the late Prime Minister).
By Arvindar Singh