The World

India could find it harder living without Gandhi than living with her

NALINI STEWART,EDA COLE April 4 1977
The World

India could find it harder living without Gandhi than living with her

NALINI STEWART,EDA COLE April 4 1977

India could find it harder living without Gandhi than living with her

The World

After the rejoicing, the reality. Within a week of its “triumph for democracy,” India’s broadly based political alliance, hastily assembled to oust Indira Gandhi, began to look as it if might come apart. Passed over for the vacant prime ministership, Jagjivan Ram, 68-year-old head of Congress for Democracy, a partner in the alliance, toyed with an invitation to join the incoming government. The day-to-day problems of making democracy work, it began to seem, might prove more troublesome than its restoration.

The task was tremendous. For a start, there was the need to reestablish the independence of the judiciary, which hád been allowed to atrophy in the past 21 months. Then there was the need to root out the corruption that had crept in as a direct result of the patronage available to officials under their emergency powers. There were an estimated 20 million educated unemployed; and although government figures issued in the election campaign painted a rosy picture of the economy—prices at the 1974 level and a doubled growth rate forecast for this year—there was the ever present threat that the country’s recent comparative prosperity could be ended by a poor rainy season, or by the ambitious program of the incoming Janata Party administration headed by the 81-year-old political veteran Morarji Desai.

All this was bound to strain an alliance whose political loyalties spanned so wide a spectrum—from conservatism, through nationalism to socialism. Janata itself is made up of four groupings, and Congress for Democracy was formed by Ram only when he walked out on Indira Gandhi and her Congress Party after the election had been announced.

The man who has the task of preventing disintegration and keeping India on the road to democracy has an impeccable political pedigree. Though he is not a member of the dynasty that has ruled India for 28 of the post-independence years, Desai, the new Prime Minister, nevertheless is a living exemplar of the ascetic tradition in Indian politics established by Mohandas Gandhi.

Desai’s principles are Gandhian, though he prefers to ascribe them to his own religious beliefs which, he says, antedate his association with the Mahatma. They are, in any case, rigorous. Desai begins each day with yoga exercises and prayer and does his best to spin some yarn on the chakra (wheel) each afternoon—as prescribed by Gandhi. He has always been a strict vegetarian and exists on a diet of

milk, nuts, honey and expensive Swiss chocolate. He does not smoke or drink and he renounced sexual intercourse after the birth of his fifth child in 1928. But his tall frame is remarkably erect and he has held

onto most of his hair. As for his age: “Mine is better than yours,” he teased a questioner. “I’m only 19.” Actually, he’s 20; he was born in leap year, 1896.

Desai is fond of telling people that he has no will of his own—“I am only God’s instrument”—but a more accurate appraisal was probably that of the man who remarked that if De Gaulle had been a Hindu he would have been Morarji Desai. Certainly he has some of De Gaulle’s autocratic ways—he has campaigned strongly in favor of prohibition, and his long war against air-conditioning in public buildings has left many Delhi civil servants sweltering.

Desai’s life is consumed by politics—“I won’t retire until I take my last breath,” he told an interviewer in January. Like most Indian politicians, he calls himself a Socialist. But in government he has encouraged free enterprise and the investment of

foreign capital. As Prime Minister he is expected to rein in the nationalized industries while carrying out Janata’s election pledge to deal first with the plight of the impoverished.

In foreign policy, Desai is regarded as sympathetic to the West—one of his complaints against Indira Gandhi was that she had compromised India’s non-aligned stance by moving too close to the Soviet Union. But his prickly moralism may bring him into painful collision with his neighbor, Pakistan’s President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. After winning reelection last month, Bhutto reimposed emergency powers similar to those of Indira Gandhi and now is busily, and with some bloodshed, suppressing all opposition.

A civil servant and a veteran of Mohandas Gandhi’s civil disobedience campaign, Desai came to Delhi in 1956 to become Minister of Industry and Commerce, then finance minister under Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister and Indira Gandhi’s father. When Nehru died in 1964, Desai hoped to succeed him, but was beaten by Lai Bahadur Shastri; he tried again when Shastri died two years later, but lost to Indira Gandhi. The defeat was bitter—he called her a “mere schoolgirl”—and it was rubbed in a year later, when he tried again.

In 1969, Desai was forced out as deputy prime minister, when Mrs. Gandhi split the Congress Party. It was the start of eight years out of power. Jailed on the first day of the emergency, in 1975, he was released 19 months later to take part in the election campaign. It seemed there was not enough time for the scattered opposition, most of whose leaders, like Desai, had seen the inside of Mrs. Gandhi’s jails, to offer more than token resistance to the Congress Party. Optimism grew, however, when Ram suddenly deserted Congress. It was reinforced when Indira Gandhi’s aunt, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, came out against her niece. The opposition also benefited from two unpopular programs pressed by the Prime Minister’s son, Sanjay; one was a slum-clearance drive, the other a push for mass sterilization of India’s masses.

Once the state of emergency was relaxed, the discontent with Mrs. Gandhi and her autocratic son swelled to a roar. Recalled Desai later: “I have been campaigning for 60 years, but had not seen such enthusiasm before. Huge crowds came to our rallies. Women with children put up with jostling crowds for hours and patiently heard what we had to say.” They were less patient with the Congress Party, whose symbol, by ill chance, was a cow and calf. “We like the cow, but not the calf,” people said, expressing the general dislike of Sanjay, who many believed was being groomed as his mother’s successor.

When the polling booths opened on March 16 at the start of the four days of voting, 318 million electors from Kashmir to Cape Comorin set out on foot, on elephants, on bullock carts and in boats to

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record their choices. The turnout was exceptionally heavy, but fears of rigged polls, violence and intimidation by police and the military turned out to be largely illusory.

And so did Indira Gandhi’s invincibility. By the time the counting stopped, Janata had won 270 of the 542 seats at stake,

Ram’s Congress for Democracy had 25 and Congress was left with 153. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was swept out of her Rae Bareli riding by Raj Narain, whom she had heavily defeated in 1971 and subsequently jailed for 20 months under the emergency. Sanjay, seeking a parliamentary seat for the first time, went down to crushing defeat in neighboring Amethi. The angry voters were just as discriminating when it came to getting back at other leading lights of the emergency: Information Minister V. C. Shukla, a staunch supporter of censorship, and Law Minister H. R. Gokhale, who put emergency curbs on the judiciary, were two casualties. But Dr. Karan Singh, the Minister of Health, kept his seat. The village voters knew mass sterilization was Sanjay’s idea, not his.

While the country went on a prolonged post-election spree, the defeated Indira Gandhi ordered the lifting of the emergency and restoration of civil liberties, then went to ground, emerging only to present her government’s resignation and to tell the nation: “The collective judgment of the people must be respected, my colleagues and I accept their verdict... in a spirit of humility.” Son Sanjay, who some angry opponents thought should stand trial, adopted an even lower profile, vowing to devote his time to “quiet, constructive work.”

In place of their defeated leader, the Congress caucus quickly chose her former foreign minister, Y. B. Chavan. But the victors found it harder to select their Prime Minister. Desai, as leader of the largest group of coalition MPS, was an obvious favorite. But Ram, leader of India’s 80 million Untouchables, put up a strong fight. Eventually, as the deadline for handing over power neared, an unusual formula was adopted to avoid hurt feelings. Two aging disciples of Mohandas Gandhi, whose impeccable credentials put them above controversy, were pressed into service to sniff out a “consensus.” The two seers—J. P. Narayan, 74, and J. B. Kripalani, 89, talked separately with the two candidates, and then proceeded to sound out the rest of the governing caucus.

It was from this arcane process that the name of Desai emerged. But there were some who were quick to interpret the alliance’s difficulty in coming to a decision as a portent of more serious dissension. Such disquiet, coupled with Desai’s noted inability to compromise his principles and the magnitude of the task to come, led even some happy Janata supporters to pause in their celebrations. If India should falter on the path to democracy, it was argued, there would be no shortage of vultures ready to pick over the remains.

NALINI STEWART/EDA COLE