Morarji Desai: First non-Congress Prime Minister, second Deputy PM

Morarji Desai, who became the first non-Congress Prime Minister of India, remained in the office for 856 days. He served as the fifth PM during 1977-79, leading the post-Emergency government led by the Janata Party.

The 1977 general elections to the sixth Lok Sabha, held in the backdrop of the 21-month-long Emergency, saw a voter turnout of 60.49 per cent. The poll percentage recorded in the previous 5 elections were: first Lok Sabha (45.67%), second Lok Sabha (47.74%), third Lok Sabha (55.42%), fourth Lok Sabha (61.04%), and fifth Lok Sabha (55.27%).

In the March 1977 elections, 5 national political parties — the ruling Indira Gandhi-led Congress, Congress (Organisation), Bharatiya Lok Dal (BLD), Communist Party of India (CPI) and Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) — 15 state parties and 14 unrecognised parties were in the fray. Days before the polls, four Opposition parties — including the Congress (O), BLD, Jana Sangh and Socialist Party — who had opposed the Emergency, announced their merger and formation of the Janata Party.

The Janata Party was founded in January 1977, but the merger of the Opposition parties with it took place after the elections. The new party had several heavyweight leaders including Chaudhary Charan Singh, who would eventually become the PM too. In the polls, the BLD got a majority by winning 295 of 405 seats it contested. The incumbent Congress was routed as the party registered its worst performance since Independence, winning only 154 seats out of 492 it contested. The CPI and the CPM got 7 and 22 seats, respectively.

Morarji Desai won from Surat by defeating Congress candidate Chauhan Jashvantsingh Dan Singh and subsequently took the oath as the PM.

Born on February 29, 1896 in Bhadeli village, now in Valsad (then known as Bulsar) district, in Gujarat, Desai joined civil services in the then Bombay province in 1918 after completing his graduation. He served as a deputy collector for 12 years before participating in the country’s freedom struggle as

he joined the Congress. In 1952, he became the chief minister of Bombay province and continued in this post till 1956. When the state was reorganised, Desai moved to the Centre and joined the Jawaharlal Nehru Cabinet as the minister of commerce and consumer industries and heavy industries from November 14, 1956 to January 1, 1957.

He contested his first Lok Sabha election from Surat in 1957 and represented the same seat in the third, fourth, fifth and sixth Lok Sabha. In the Union government, he held various portfolios including finance. In August 1963, he resigned from the Nehru Cabinet under the “Kamraj Plan”, under which top Congress leaders quit the government to work for the party organisation.

Desai later returned to the government, joining the Indira Gandhi Cabinet as the Deputy PM — the country’s second one (Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel served as the first Deputy PM) — and minister of finance in March 1967. In July 1969, he resigned as the Deputy PM after PM Gandhi took away the finance portfolio from him. In 1969, when the Congress split, he joined the anti-Gandhi party faction called the Congress (Organisation). He contested the 1971 parliamentary election on its ticket and won, remaining active in the Opposition ranks.

On June 26, 1975, when the then PM Gandhi declared the Emergency in the country, Desai was arrested and was released on January 18, 1977, just ahead of the sixth general elections.

Desai wrote several books including “Discourses on the Gita”, “The Story of My Life” and “Book on Nature Cure”.

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