“My only interest in remaining in politics is to bring in morality.” —Morarji Desai
The former Prime Minister of India, Morarji Desai, was known for his quirky behaviour, and practising urine therapy was just one of them. In an interview to Society dated September 1980, he speaks about politics, life, death, importance of celibacy, finding God and more…
Ironically, the death of Sanjay Gandhi seems to have given Morarji Desai a fresh lease of life. At least, in the media. It’s not just the astrologers who’re predicting his comeback, but also some eager journalists who are hinting at the resurrection of Morarji Desai. Suddenly, there are more requests for interviews, more personal telephone calls and more mail directed towards his Marine Drive residence than ever before.
And yet, a few months ago, Morarji Desai had ceased to exist, history appeared to have cast him away into obscurity, after a last desperate tryst with glory. It wasn’t the first time Morarji Desai had ceased to exist. Once before, his grand designs fell heavily on his Aryan nose thanks to Mrs Indira Gandhi. It was a decade ago. He left the Congress party in disgrace, his political career in shambles. Well almost. Till he rose from that eight-year-old political wastepaper basket, propelled by the strong Janata wind, to occupy the most powerful office in the country.
Today, the world of Morarji Desai has shrunk in size—to a large room facing the sea in his son Kanti Desai’s apartment. If he looks out at all, he sees a patch of murky Arabian Sea, and a strip of Malabar Hill. The room is not exactly meticulously kept—unlike the fastidious man who occupies it. There are a dozen suitcases stacked above a couple of cupboards. A few portraits hang on the wall, one of which is of his father, I presume. Around half a dozen pairs of shoes, and more pairs of slippers line the side of the room. Curiously enough, there is a foreign painting of a woman fishing by a wharf—it could be Venice or Amsterdam.
Morarji Desai seldom leaves the comforts of that room nowadays. He paces up and down to get a little exercise, or reclines on his bed when he receives visitors or is answering his green telephone. He answers his mail (very often addressed to Morarji Desai, Former Prime Minister) in his own handwriting. A small transistor, the only modern gadget, rests on a side table.
Morarji Desai keeps an open house, a true man of the public—there are no real or artificial barriers. All you need is a word with Tawde, an extremely pleasant man in his 30s, who has been with Morarji Desai for 13 years. A few visitors stop by to greet Kanti Desai, who parks himself in the hall next to his father’s room and who sends word to the other requesting a ‘darshan’. Some of them touch Bapu’s feet, and sit down on the floor in an exhibition of respect. But whatever they are, Morarji Desai treats them more or less equally. The casual visitors never get an offer for a cup of tea or coffee as he feels it’s not necessary. ‘I don’t invite them, so why should I offer them anything?’
somebody overhead him saying to a friend.
Morarji Desai has a strange set of rules, based on what he believes is the truth. There are a few politicians today who look as immaculately clean as he does in his starched white dhoti-kurta outfit, among a sea of corruption. His principles are his own, difficult to follow, even more difficult to understand. You can either agree with him or disagree. No one can say he betrays them himself. Recently, someone who hung around the Desai household heard this interesting bit of telephone conversation—Morarji Desai likes Jimmy Carter because according to him, “he’s one of the few world leaders who’s not a womaniser.”
When I entered his sanctum-sanctorum, I didn’t quite know how to behave. To touch his feet, to say Namaste, to shake hands, to say hi, to say good morning—somehow all forms of greetings seemed out of place. There was a huge gap of half a century between us. I smiled and sat in suspense. It took him a few minutes to turn and focus, his aging, liquid eyes on me. I had in mind his reputation for ruining interviews with countless monologues and counter-questions. I broke the ice with that stupid question, and knew instantly that I’d put my foot into my mouth.
Morarji Desai admonished me in the strongest terms for the irresponsible way I carried my impressions and worse still, brandished them at him. He said that he had decided against giving me an interview. Fortunately, he changed his mind somewhere along his outrage. And when he spoke, he spoke with the ease of a man who wasn’t carrying the burden of a lie with him. The words came—a little laboured, but simple and precise. As we progressed from question to question, the decades rolled by till we were ‘vibing’ (a term Desai would hate) rather well. He confessed that the earlier drama regarding my impudence was only a joke. I knew then that everything wasn’t lost, for me or for Morarji Desai, as long as he retained that sparkle of humour.
How did you react to the rumours of your death?
I enjoyed them.
You must have thought of death and things like that?
I am not worried about death, I would be happy to go this minute.
What’s your personal philosophy?
To take life as it comes.
Do you believe that whatever happened in your life was destined?
You are free to do any action as you want. That’s not done by destiny. What you get is destiny. Because, that’s the result of your own actions. Destiny is not given by God, one thing to one man, something else to another man. Then God would be unjust, partial and would cease to be God.
Do you mean that the fact that you became the Prime Minister of this country was not destined, but the result of your work?
That’s destiny. That’s not the result of my work. But, what I do as Prime Minister is a new action for which I am responsible. And whatever wrong I have done, I’ll have to pay for it.
Have you done anything wrong?
Have I done any wrong? I have to know it from the people.
Why do you think the Janata government failed so badly?
That’s because of the tendency in this country. We are all impatient.
Are you saying that there are no particular factions or persons responsible?
All are responsible. The majority of people are responsible. Otherwise, who else is responsible?
But, you being the head of the government…
So, what could I do? Have I done anything to destroy it?
You could have been more forceful?
How? Then, it would have broken long ago.
You could have given the right guidance?
I did. That’s why it lasted for 27 months. During these 27 months, all the cabinet decisions that were taken were unanimous, it would never have happened if I had not given the lead.
What according to you went wrong?
There were some who wanted to be Prime Minister. This is the malady in this country. In fact, Mr Charan Singh said that his life’s ambition was to be the Prime Minister. This is what’s going on in the country for 2000 years. As a matter of fact, the formation of the Janata Party was a new thing happening in the country for the first time. We were always divided. Take any newspaper, or your office, or anywhere you go.
Are you saying that the country has no future?
This country has the best future. When it reached its summit, it was bound to come down. It has taken 2000 years. Yet, this is the only country which has not been destroyed in the world. All other civilisations have gone. Have you studied the culture of this country? If you know the culture of the country, you’ll not say such things. This is the only country whose civilisation has survived to this day. Whether it is Egypt, Babylon or Sumeria, there is absolutely no indication of that in those countries at present.
Is it because we are highly resistant to change?
There is an inherent quality in this country which doesn’t allow anybody to destroy it. Whoever tries to destroy it will himself be destroyed. Ravan was destroyed.
Did selfless patriotism vanish with the independence? Today, do we find more self-seekers?
No, it hasn’t vanished. On the contrary, it has increased. Even during the independence movement, how many people were actually a part of it? A lakh or two going to jail out of 50 or 60 crore, is that many? The latter years have seen too many pretenders in national politics whose only claim is jail stint. There were pretenders then also.
Don’t you think the caliber of politicians has deteriorated?
I don’t think it has deteriorated. Many in India and abroad say that you are not a modern man. As also Mahatma Gandhi.
What does it mean? Does it mean that I am not promiscuous?
Meaning your prejudice against modern technology, big industry… Whoever said Gandhi was against technology was wrong. I am not against industries. There are times when other things have to play a role—like food. But big industries are essential. Take electricity, or steel. These are essentially for big industries only.
Is it because of your advanced age that people automatically come to such conclusions?
People can’t find anything else to say, so they have to think up something. Like, people say I am rigid…Even Mrs Indira Gandhi said that there wasn’t a bigger dictator than you…
Where did she say this?
In the press reports. If I were a dictator, would she have been out? Wouldn’t they all have been locked up, not only locked up, but disposed off? But, I have not seen such reports.
Maybe, your style of functioning…
My style of functioning is known to everybody. It’s open. I have no secrets.
Some of your critics say that your penchant for sticking to high moral principles and the truth is out of place in today’s world of politics.
How? Is truth out of place today? Then we are gone. Will it ever be out of place? Is international politics based on convenience rather than ethics? That’s the malady of the world today. I tried to do things differently.
But then, you were set aside as an odd person?
It’s bound to be. I am a freak. I admit it. If you go to a lunatic asylum, the inmates consider you mad. So, I have to find out for myself whether I’ve done anything bad. I have to be convinced about what wrong I am doing or have done.
But, your personal convictions are at times out of tune with the way the masses feel.
I am not trying to impose my personal convictions on anybody.
Wouldn’t you like to?
Why? Because if you believe that drinking is bad, wouldn’t you like to stop it if you could?
When what I believe is the truth, I must act on it. But, I consider that you have every right to think what you think is the truth. I pay a price for adhering to my truth. I pay and do it cheerfully.
You’ve led an exciting public career which has had many ups and downs…
I don’t consider them ups and downs. It’s inevitable. I’ve passed through different experiences. The experience that I have, I think very few have. I’ve been in public life for 50 or 60 years. With this experience, a person acquires a deeper insight into life. And, if I say that and they can’t give a reply, they merely say I am out of place.
Doesn’t the fact that one day you’re at the height of power and the next day you’re without it bother you? How do you cope?
I am not a quick-change artist. What’s there to cope in it? In my whole life, I have not sought any office whatsoever, even the Service that I got, my professor had written the application, and told me to sign it.
Then, how did you get into positions of power?
Fate. Life takes you there. I only do my duty and service to the people.
Do you mean to say, it doesn’t matter to you at all?
I take all conditions as they come cheerfully and do my duty.
Isn’t there any ego left in you?
I can’t say I have shed it completely. I have certainly given it up, up to 95 per cent. I believe until and unless I give up my ego, I can’t realise God. My whole ambition in life is to realise God or truth, whatever you may want to call it. Do you believe in God? It’s a fashion not to believe in God.
It’s not a fashion, it’s a question of a lack of conviction…
Belief in God is a matter of personal conviction and faith.
But if everybody is going to be as original as you, we might have a problem.
Why? There will be no problem, they’ll work together. Take the cabinet decisions for example. Why were they unanimous? Because, I set an example. When we discussed, we discussed freely, just as we discuss now. They could speak anything they liked. But, when it came to decisions, when I found that my view was in minority, I accepted the majority’s view readily. If I resisted and insisted on having my way, I could have still run the administration. But, I would’ve ruined it.
You were obviously very strongly in favour of prohibition and wanted to impose it all over the country. What was the rationale behind it?
It’s a myth again that only I am responsible for prohibition. When prohibition was passed in the constituent assembly and made a part of the constitution, I was not a member of the august body. When it was introduced in Bombay, I was not the Chief Minister. Yes, it’s true that I am in favour of prohibition.
Isn’t that kind of coercion?
Now, if that’s coercion, then the whole Indian Penal Code is coercion.
Is it a crime to drink?
Is any serious crime committed without drinking? You see, if drinking were ruining only the man himself, then it wouldn’t matter so much. But, why have we introduced it in the constitution? It’s a crime against society as well. Take the case of ending your own life. Life is to live, therefore we’ve to discourage suicide. That doesn’t mean you can’t actually stop suicide, nobody can stop the actual act. Therefore, it’s only the unsuccessful attempt which is an offence.
But, did the prohibition policy really change anything?
In 1950, when it was first introduced in Bombay, there was a great deal of opposition to it. The communist party made it one of the points in
its manifestos, and then lost. That means the people wanted it. Again, when Karunanidhi declared Tamil Nadu wet, he began to lose the elections, he was forced to bring it back in three years. I remember an encounter in the ’50s with three top foreign journalists from London who were briefed by the late Frank Moraes. I told them to go around Bombay and see if there were the same numbers of drunks as before the prohibition. After three to four days, they admitted the good effect it had had on the working class. The women were happy because their men didn’t drink. Three foreign mill managers even told them how it had reduced absenteeism. Moraes publicly acknowledged it after that. We can’t make drinking respectable, then more people will drink. This is the time to act. In another 15 years, it’ll be too late. The problem is also that a lot of press people drink. I stopped all that. They resented it. When I used to go abroad, (I’ve done it practically every year since 1958), our people used to advise me to serve non-vegetarian food and liquor at the parties. They told me that the guests wouldn’t come otherwise, I told them—‘let them not come’, and yet they all came to the dinners.
Isn’t that going against our traditional hospitality?
Is it hospitable to give somebody something which you consider not good yourself?
Have you ever tried meat during your entire life?
No. I’ve tried eggs once. I didn’t like them, and therefore I did not do it again. It’s more out of principle. I don’t take vaccination or inoculation. All the countries I have visited have exempted me.
The international press took great pleasure in playing up your theories on urine-therapy.
They admitted they were wrong later. Only when I was asked about it specifically, I’ve answered their questions. If I hadn’t, they would’ve said I am uncooperative. Have I made any propaganda? It all started when I wrote a preface for a book called Manav Mutra in 1959. A communist MP raised a question in Parliament, ‘Why is the Finance Minister writing such dirty things?’ I told him that I didn’t write it in my capacity as a Finance Minister, but as a private citizen. Had I lost my personal freedom because I’d become a minister?
Does ‘urine-therapy’ really work? Is there any real scientific support to your claim?
I receive letters from people who’ve been cured with the therapy. What research are you talking about? Research also has become a myth. Do people know about the research behind English medicine? And what nauseating drugs they take. You see the indiscriminate way they take vitamins. These are all prejudices. Several years ago, a man called Lawrence Armstrong was suffering from TB. One day, he was reading the psalms from the Bible, he found the passage, ‘Drink from your own cistern when you’re in trouble.’ He wondered what it meant. It struck him that it was his own urine. And, he saw in the veterinary hospitals some animals given their own urine by his doctor friend. Nature has provided its own cures. What happens to the birds and animals in the forest? For 45 days, he consumed all the urine he passed and at the end of it, he was a young man. Then he wrote a book, Waters of Life.
You’re said to be against the use of contraceptives in family planning. Isn’t celibacy an impractical alternative?
Celibacy is not only my view, but also that of several others’, including the Roman Catholic Church. I don’t say that this can be prescribed to the people. Here again, people say that I am imposing my will on them. I am not alone, Mahatma Gandhi was also against all artificial methods of family planning. He felt strongly about it. He said that by using it, you’re turning women into prostitutes. He used such hard language. But, I know that the government doesn’t run on individual opinions. Celibacy depends on self will. Only one in a million people can do it. It’s necessary to have family planning. But, it doesn’t lead to mental strength.
Does celibacy lead to greater mental strength?
It does because you are utilising this most powerful liquid, and you assimilate it, that’s how it gives you more mental strength. It’s rational. But, being rational doesn’t help. Truth is also rational.
Isn’t it unnatural to curb an instinct which God himself has provided for man?
God has also given the sense to control. He has given us intelligence which could be utilised both for good and bad. I am not saying it’s easy for people to adopt celibacy—very few can do it.
Isn’t it an ascetic way of looking at life?
Is an ascetic a bad person?
I mean if we have 60 crores of them?
Then the country would be heaven. It is impossible that it can happen.
Frankly, what do you foresee for this country, for yourself?
For myself, nothing.
Are you planning to retire from public life?
No. But I’ve never sought anything. I believe in a life of action. Supposing tomorrow sense returns to many in the Janata Party, they want to come together, I would like to help them.
Aren’t you bitter about what happened in the recent past?
No. I had no quarrel with anyone. I’ve no ill-feeling or complaints. I am not disappointed, not even for a second.
Wasn’t it something you cherished, something you wanted to be in life?
I only cherished service to people. There should not be greed even in service.
But, everybody seems to be after the chair.
I am not.
Do you believe in astrology?
I don’t consult astrologers. Nor do I go by it. I never look for an auspicious day. I consider astrology as a perfect science. But, I also believe what has to happen cannot be changed. Then what’s the use? When you know, you worry about it. That why I never consult any astrologer. Of course, many of them come to me. But, no one can say I invited him or asked any questions. But when I believe it’s a science, how can I deny it?
What kind of a relationship do you share with your son? You have opted to stay with him.
Should I not live with my own son? If I see that he’s doing something wrong, I won’t stay with him. But in order to save my reputation from false attacks, I should not do him injustice. One must not save one’s name at the cost of another’s. He has his own life. Whatever I’ve saved goes to Vidya Pith, not to him. There also, he’s a trustee.
There is so much written about Kanti’s misdeeds in the press? Are they all untruths?
They are all false accusations deliberately made. Why are they not appointing a commission? Because they know that these facts will be known and the accusers will be exposed.
The Bombay film industry doesn’t consider you a ‘friend’. You even refuse to see a film?
If I don’t see a film, that doesn’t mean I am out of touch. I know what’s going on from what I read. I also have some friends in the industry. Prithviraj Kapoor was known to me personally. Ramanand Sagar sees me so often. I just corrected his Yogeshwar Krishna, and gave it to Shri Mohla. I have even acted in a children’s film. It was a 10-minute role which I did somewhere around 1961. I had to quote from Gandhi. I spoke for 8 to 10 minutes continuously without any rehearsal, or writing, or retake. Not one word had to be changed. Because when you speak and act truthfully, you do not make a mistake. It comes naturally.
This is, I must say, your lesser-known lighter side…
Of course, I enjoy life. I joke with a lot of press people. But when I joke, I do my best not to hurt anybody’s feeling.
But when you speak your mind, you are bound to hurt others?
I try to say it in such a manner that it does not hurt and there is no dislike in me for any person. That used to happen before. I used to tread on people’s toes. I don’t do it now. I am changed. I’ve never referred to Indira Gandhi as anything else but Indiraben or Mrs Indira Gandhi.
All through your public life, you were never known as a family man, but rather as a crusty old man?
That’s because I never believed in bringing my family into public limelight. During my service of 12 years, my family never had anything to do with it. I’ve three brothers, they’ve never brought a single case to me in my life. I’ve made a rule in life not to hear any recommendation, not to make any.
Don’t you think it would be good for the image, shots of you with your children, etc.?
I too love children. I enjoy being with them. But, I’ve never publicised it. I certainly don’t need it. As it is I get too much of publicity.
Very often, unfortunately the wrong kind of publicity appears in the press…That happens. Is God free form it? Was Mahatma Gandhi free from it? It’s due to ignorance also. Some of these people deliberately misquote. That’s why I make a distinction. I don’t give interviews to yellow journalists.
Were you a very hot-tempered person?
I was a hot-tempered person. I’ve been cooling down since ’52. I have been trying to control it for 30 years. The success came when I was in detention during the Emergency. That’s why I thanked Mrs Gandhi for it.
Is it true that you can’t stomach any kind of criticism?
I receive some letters sometimes abusing me. I write back to them saying that I don’t want to reciprocate their language. To live a life of truth one has to suffer, but must suffer cheerfully.
Should we bring spirituality into politics like you’ve done?
Unless morality comes to public life, politics will remain what it is all over the world. My only interest in remaining in politics is to bring in morality. I’ve chosen the path of action and bhakti.
By Binoy Thomas