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Why Morarji was bound to lose

A year before Shastri’s succession,Desai had already alienated his party and Parliament

Written by Inder Malhotra |
June 25, 2012 12:51:31 am

A year before Shastri’s succession,Desai had already alienated his party and Parliament

On June 2,1964,when the issue of succession to Nehru was clinched,I wrote for the next issue of my then newspaper,The Statesman,an analysis of Shastri’s ascent to power. It began: “Mr Morarji Desai lost the battle of succession not today but 13 months earlier on April 26,1963.” Forty-eight years later there is absolutely no reason to change a word of this verdict. For what Desai did in Lok Sabha on that balmy spring afternoon was a staggering display of the authoritarian,indeed dictatorial,side of his personality that deeply alienated the entire House and the bulk of the political class. Let facts speak for themselves.

As finance minister of the country in the devastating aftermath of the border war with China,it was Morarji’s thankless task to raise resources for reorganising and strengthening the Indian army. Of the measures proposed by him,two — the Gold Control Order and a Compulsory Deposits scheme — were particularly unpopular. On the relevant afternoon,Desai was keen to get the bill authorising compulsory deposits passed but he had reckoned without the strong opposition to it across the political spectrum,including his own party,then larger than all others put together.

Opponents of the bill argued that what the finance minister was imposing was not a tax but a “forced loan” that was ultra vires. They wanted the speaker to summon the attorney-general to explain the constitutional pros and cons of the measure under discussion. Explaining that only the government could summon the top law officer to the House,Speaker Hukam Singh sought Desai’s opinion,prefacing this request with the significant remark that most members of the House wanted this done. Morarji’s reply could not have been more offensive,arrogant and infuriating. While claiming to have the “greatest respect for the honourable members of the House and even greater for the Chair”,he stated that this “does not mean that I should accept every desire even if it is unanimous (emphasis added). There are some things where one has to do one’s duty.” In short,he flatly refused to summon the attorney-general “even if the whole House wants it.”

Inevitably,there was a flurry of protests and points of order. H.V. Kamath,a highly voluble and effective member belonging to the Praja Socialist Party,quoted chapter and verse from the Constitution to support his point that the attorney-general had a right to attend both Houses of Parliament and either House could ask for his presence at will. But Desai,inflexible and self-righteous as ever,compounded his blunder by declaring,“I have only said that I cannot fall in line myself with the desire (to summon the attorney-general). Even if the House is unanimous,it is outside the Constitution,(and therefore) it is my right and duty to say that I do not agree with it.”

This was glaring contempt of the House. So the speaker tried hard to control a dangerously explosive situation. Once again he “put it to the finance minister” that if it “is a responsible government,and this government is responsible to this House,then it must not be said that even if the House is unanimous,the government would not do it”. Desai did not heed this sage advice.

On the contrary,entangled in exchanges with members and visibly agitated himself,he made a slip for which he had to apologise later. He allowed himself to say,“After all,I am told today that I cannot pass,I cannot enact this law because it is not within the Constitution.” The massive storm this produced subsided suddenly to enable Communist leader S.A. Dange to taunt Desai and ask the chair: “How can he use such words? Who is he to pass it? The House has to pass it.”

At this stage,Ajit Prasad Jain,a senior Congress member and a former minister in the Nehru cabinet,rose. “Morarji”,he said looking straight at the finance minister,“this House is supreme. We would not tolerate any defiance of it.” Mahavir Tyagi,also a former minister and a close friend of Jain,requested the speaker: “Sir,I suggest that the House should be adjourned.” “That seems to be my only escape,” remarked the speaker,and adjourned the House.

The next morning when the House reassembled,it was overcrowded but absolutely cool. The prime minister was present,which was usual. More noticeable was the presence of Attorney-General M.C. Setalvad,a man of enviable eloquence and mathematical logic. He patiently answered all the questions raised by MPs and explained to them that compulsory deposits were not outside the purview of the Constitution,especially because the amounts deposited would be returned with interest. The irony is that the compulsory deposits scheme became operational after Desai was out of the cabinet under the Kamaraj Plan and T.T. Krishnamachari was finance minister.

It is arguable that one parliamentary debate,however annoying,cannot possibly influence the course of history. True,but the problem is that what Desai did in Lok Sabha on that April afternoon was so horrendous and unacceptable that it crystallised the inchoate fears and apprehensions about the possible dangers of Desai succeeding Nehru. Almost everyone contrasted his “dictatorial” attitude with Shastri’s unfailing search for consensus on every issue,his willingness to listen to every point of view and,above all,his absolute refusal to impose his views on anyone.

On June 3,nearly half-a-century ago,when my news analysis appeared,I received many phone calls endorsing my view. To my surprise,one of these was from Krishna Menon. Morarji,usually prompt and forthright in remonstrating with journalists writing critically of him,said nothing this time round.

Several years later,Kamaraj confided to me,off the record,that it was on that infamous April 26 that he and his cohorts made up their minds that Morarji Desai had to be stopped. No wonder,the Kamaraj Plan had taken effect in less than three months,and before October of that year,the “Syndicate” had finalised its blueprint to ensure that Shastri should be the next prime minister.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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