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Morarji Desai saw this letter from Indira Gandhi as a brazen attack on his self-respect and resigned

In Morarji Desai: A Profile in Courage, Arvindar Singh writes about how 1969 was a turning point in Morarji’s life and in the history of India.

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The year 1969 was to prove a major turning point not only in Morarji’s life, but also in the history India. It was on the 3rd of May 1969 that India’s much respected President Dr Zakir Hussain died. Mrs Gandhi was touring Rajasthan at this time and Morarji, as Deputy Prime Minister made arrangements for his body to be kept in state. It was this vacancy for the Presidency which let loose a chain of political events which no one could have possibly foreseen at that time.

During his discussions with Mrs Gandhi, Morarji found her mentioning the name of Vice President V.V. Giri, for Presidency. Morarji was of the view that Giri had attracted a lot of criticism on account of his fondness for travel accompanied always by his family. Two other names being considered were that of Jagjivan Ram, the Union Agriculture Minister and D. Sanjivayya, former Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, as it was felt in a Gandhi Centenary year a candidate from the backward community, in deference to the Mahatma’s ideals, should be elected to the post of President, the first citizen of India.

Morarji felt that Jagjivan Ram, who was involved in a case of income-tax evasion, was not an appropriate choice (It was disclosed in Parliament that he had not paid his income tax for 10 years, though Jagjivan Ram claimed it was due to forgetfulness and not a deliberate misdemeanour). Sanjivayya was still too young though otherwise quite suitable. The name of Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy, the then Speaker of the Lok Sabha was also amongst one of the possible choices. The discussions were not conclusive and various names were being floated around.

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Morarji returned from Germany in early July and flew straight to Bangalore from Bombay, where the AICC was to meet. The Congress candidate for Presidency was to be selected by the Parliamentary Board. When Morarji arrived at Bangalore he found that Mrs Gandhi was yet to reach the session. Her arrival was delayed due to ill health, and she had sent a note with her ‘stray thoughts’ which included Bank Nationalisation, to be discussed at the AICC. After some discussion, a compromise resolution moved by Morarji was approved unanimously by the AICC. However, much was to follow.

On 12 July 1969 the Congress Parliamentary Board decided by a majority to support Sanjeeva Reddy over Jagjivan Ram as the Congress candidate for Presidency. To Mrs Gandhi’s surprise, her Home Minister, Y.B. Chavan, had voted with the Syndicate for Sanjeeva Reddy. He had been assuring her of his support till the last moment. He was to do another volte-face on reaching Delhi and join Mrs Gandhi, in a day’s time. An attempt for a compromise was made between Mrs Gandhi and Congress President S. Nijalingappa, but it did not achieve much.

On the Prime Minister’s approval, Nijalingappa announced Sanjeeva Reddy’s name on the 13th of July. On 16 July 1969, at around 12:30 pm, Morarji received a letter from Indira Gandhi informing him that she was taking over the Finance Ministry. She asked him to continue as Deputy-Prime Minister and that the work to be assigned to him would be discussed later. Soon after this came an official announcement that the Prime Minister had taken charge of Finance. Stung by a brazen attack on his self-respect, Morarji immediately resigned from the Cabinet.

Being the No.2 man in the Cabinet and in the country, Morarji felt that the least courtesy of consulting him before changing his portfolio should have been adhered to by the Prime Minister, instead of the unilateral decision taken by her. Mrs Gandhi, the next day, asked him to continue in the Cabinet as Deputy Prime Minister.

Morarji made it clear that unless suitable amends were made, it would be impossible for him to do so. He could not and would not accept any office at the cost of his self-respect or honour. His resignation was accepted on 17 July, 1969 at around 4:00 pm. That very evening, the decision to nationalise 14 major banks was announced. While making a statement in Parliament on his resignation, on 21 July 1969, Morarji said that during the period that he was Deputy Prime Minister, he had made a conscientious effort to perform his duties as Minister for Finance to pursue and implement the policies of the Party and the Cabinet from time to time.

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The Prime Minister, he added, in her letter relieving him of the charge of the Finance Ministry had cited his differences on certain basic issues of policy (Bank Nationalisation) and stated that she did not want to burden him with implementing these decisions. This despite the fact that he had moved the resolution himself on Bank Nationalisation at the AICC Session in Bangalore. He went on to state that he had only put on record the pros and cons of the issue while a discussion had taken place in the Working Committee and this could not be construed as opposition; if it was otherwise he would not have moved the resolution in the AICC.

Turning to those in the Congress and opposition who considered him as opposed to progressive and socialist measures, Morarji went on to state that he had known poverty first hand in his youth and the eradication of poverty and upliftment of the masses had been one of his main guiding principles in public life. Quoting Gandhi’s dictum that every interest which was in conflict with the interest of the downtrodden should be checked by governmental authority, he went on to add that he hoped the House would appreciate the correctness of his stand.

In her reply Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was complimentary to Morarjiʼs role as a freedom fighter and his strong sense of discipline. She tried to skirt the issue of asking for his resignation without verbally informing him, ultimately expressing regret that he had quit the Cabinet. Soon thereafter, on the plea of ‘Conscience Vote’ the Prime Minister’s supporters defeated the official Congress nominee Sanjeeva Reddy. V.V. Giri thus entered Rashtrapati Bhavan in August 1969. A split in the Congress became inevitable and it was in November 1969 that it was formalised with the expulsion of Mrs Gandhi by the Working Committee.

This excerpt from Morarji Desai: A Profile in Courage by Arvindar Singh has been published with permission from Niyogi Books.

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  1. Dr.Sood, your dislike for Morarji Desai just owing to his apparently odd practice alone, doesn’t indicate you to be a balanced minded person. I don’t think he ever forced you or any other person to do likewise. You have exposed yourself to be a hypocrite – what you have written as his biggest blunder, is that not a comment on him ?

  2. Indira Gandhi was the worst PM, India ever had. She was dictatorial and bribed by Communists to turn India into a Communist lobby.
    She imposed internal emergency, so that she could become queen of India.

  3. I don’t like this person. He is no more so I don’t want to make any comments. He was drinking his own urine and that was his biggest blunder. May God bless his soul in peace. 🙏🙏

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