My Interview with India’s
Prime Minister, Morarji Desai
By Rick Cormier
“The Prime Minister will see you now,” said the aide. I left my seat so mechanically I almost forgot Richard was with me. When I reached the door of the suite an agent, C.I.A. perhaps, stepped in front of me. “Hold it!” he said. “Open that up!” He pointed to the cassette compartment of my tape recorder. “BWOOOOOOOOP!” Feedback echoed through the hall. My heart pounded. I had pushed the wrong button. When I finally managed to turn it off I felt like an idiot. The agent examined the tiny cassette compartment with a chrome penlight and let me pass. Underneath the bulky recorder was a utility compartment big enough to store lunch for two but, I guess he didn’t notice. He checked Richard’s cameras with a thoroughness that was, at least, consistent.
With a brisk sweeping motion of his hand, the aide gestured for me to enter the Prime Minister’s suite. Instead of being able to walk confidently yet casually into the room as I had hoped, I was nearly trampled by more than a dozen major television reporters and news anchors who were confidently and casually walking out. The bulky recorder was pulling hard on my arm. “What am I doing here?” I thought.
Months ago I had requested this interview with eighty-two-year-old Morarji Desai, a remarkable man. After holding a civil service position with the British government in India for twelve years, he resigned his post in 1930 to join the independence movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. After independence, Desai served in Nehru’s cabinet as Minister of Commerce and Industry, and as Finance Minister. He later served as Indira Gandhi’s Deputy Prime Minister until his retirement in 1969.
He became active again in 1975, protesting Indira Gandhi’s policies. She had Desai imprisoned for nineteen months as an enemy of the state, along with many other eminent Indian public figures who would form the Janata Party which in 1977 was voted into power.
Desai eats two meals a day consisting simply of cheese, fruit, and milk. When he wakes at 4:00 each morning he meditatively spins cloth, a practice made popular by Mahatma Gandhi during India’s struggle for independence from Britain. His close association with Mahatma Gandhi was what I was interested in. Desai’s opinions could enhance my research. It seemed far-fetched that the Prime Minister of India would agree to meet with a twenty-four-year-old undergraduate student to talk about Gandhian philosophy but there I was. Only a week ago the date was set for June 12th. Only yesterday I was told to be at the United Nations Plaza Hotel, N.Y. today (June 11th ) at 7:45 a.m. I wondered now if one hour of sleep, a cup of coffee, and half pack of cigarettes had been enough to get me through this.
When we arrived at the 28th floor of the hotel, we met our first Consulate Aide. He was a short, middle-aged Asian Indian with black-framed glasses and a slightly limp turban. He rushed about like a housewife trying to coordinate a dinner for thirty.
“I’m Rick Cormier,” I said, “and this is Richard St. Aubin, who will be photographing the interview.” “Yes, come this way,” he replied hastily. I assumed he was taking us directly to the Prime Minister, but instead we entered a small hotel room filled with aides. “Have a seat,” said our host, pointing to an unmade bed behind us.
“Could you tell us the proper way to greet the Prime Minister?” Richard asked. “You have not looked into this matter beforehand? The aide replied clutching frantically at his hands. “I am not authorized to advise you in such matters.” He turned to leave and then turned back again. “Did you bring your suits?” he asked. Richard and I looked at each other. We both wore dress slacks. I wore a print shirt opened at the collar. Richard wore a white shirt and tie. “No,” I answered calmly. “This is what we are wearing.” He nodded quickly, then scurried away, and I buttoned my collar.
When the last of the reporters had cleared the doorway, I entered the suite. Dozens of thick electrical and video cables covered the floor between me and the Prime Minister, who could be seen in an adjoining room. Another aide came from behind and with a wide circling motion of his arm gestured for me to cross the less scattered cables to my left. As I did, a television cameraman began blindly gathering the cables with such speed that they squirmed and slithered around my feet like snakes. I was relieved the Prime Minister hadn’t seen me as I hopped across the room.
‘GOOD MORNING MR. PRIME MINISTER’
Desai was sitting on a couch talking to someone in Hindi. As I approached him he smiled pleasantly, stood and extended his hand. “Good Morning Mr. Prime Minister,” I said shaking his hand. He bowed his head graciously without a word.
When we sat, he was handed a folder with my name on it. While he read its contents I realized I had forgotten to bring a mike stand. I would have to hold the mike in one hand and my notes in the other. Awkward. I made myself ready quickly. I had been told that I would have three minutes with him. As he casually read page after page in the folder, I wondered whether the meter was running. Finally, he finished and looked at me and smiled again. It was okay to begin.
“To what extent does the Gandhian philosophy play a part in the unity of the Janata Party?” I asked.
“To the extent the Janata Party has accepted it.” he replied.
I hesitated. “And to what extent is that?”
“Well, we have accepted it, but we have to work it out now,” He replied. “The main thrust of Mahatma Gandhi’s policy and philosophy lies in right means, first of all…” As he spoke, he looked directly at me. I wanted to return the eye contact, but I was concerned about the recording level and what my next question would be. The more I tried to focus my attention, the more fidgety I became.
“Whatever you do,” he continued, “…must be done by right means, peacefully, without injury to other persons. The content of it can be measured only by how it benefits the poorest man and how it brings to man his human qualities; that is, he lives for others and not only for himself.”
Desai’s voice was soft. His words were precise and evenly paced. In his presence was a profound feeling of peacefulness which somehow affected the atmosphere in the room. It soon affected me also. In his eyes was the message that everything was okay. We were just two people talking. Behind me I could hear the clicking of Richard’s camera.
“Gandhi recommended celibacy,” I said, “…as a means of preserving spiritual, mental and physical energy…”
He anticipated my question. “As I say often, I believe in self-control, but how many people will practice self-control? In America how many will you find?” He threw his hands in the air. “I don’t know that I’ll find half-a-dozen people!” he said with a grin. “Then how am I to preach it to them? What if population does become a liability when means of production are not available?”
“You’ve got to control it, but you’ve got to enable the people to do it themselves voluntarily, not by coercion.”
“Population control also preserves energy,” he added. “If you have a small family, you can concentrate your energy to make their lives better. But if you have a large family, how are you preserving your energy? You’re wasting it and broadcasting it.”
I asked his views on non-violent resistance.
“Violence and non-violence both are there in the world. If there is violence, everybody is not going to be non-violent.” His expression became dead sober as he went on. “But even if you are violent, you must not do it with any passion, you must not do it with attachment. When you do it for selfishness or to hurt somebody, it harms you. But if you do it in order to save someone, and you are not able to do it otherwise, then it is a matter of duty. Then it will not bind or harm you.”
“How do you feel about Gandhi’s claim that ‘with the loss of India to non-violence the last hope of the world will be gone’?” I asked.
“India must believe in non-violence. If India doesn’t believe in it, who will? It has come from India. Maximum work should be done that way. But when it comes to a position where you are not able to do it, then he (Gandhi) also said that to run away is cowardice.”
“Unless violence decreases,” he went on, “how is man to arrive at his real mission? If ordinary people take more and more to non-violence, the world will develop properly. But it’s a long process. It can’t be done in a year or two.”
“I’ve heard it said that non-violent resistance worked for India only because the British were civilized people. Do you see any truth in that?” I asked.
“Non-violence changes even lions and tigers.” His face glowed as if the thought was an old friend. “It’s not a thing that can work only in India; it can work anywhere provided there are a certain number of people who will do it.”
“Would non-violent resistance have worked for the Jews during World War II?”
“If they had the spirit,” he replied. “But their spirit didn’t come so quickly. Ultimately they were killed, but if they had given resistance with smiling faces, even Hitler might have been changed. If I have got that much non-violence, then in my presence that person will not be violent.”
“Peace can only come when nobody wants to lead somebody else,” said Desai. “When the biggest countries give up the idea of leading other people and dominating other people and they get the idea of utilizing their strength to benefit other people, as equals, not in a patronizing spirit but as a beauty, then peace will come.”
There was a foreshadowing in that statement. The following day Desai would tell President Carter and the U.N. of India’s refusal to sign the Nuclear Disarmament Pact until the major powers were willing to sign it also.
“Thank you very much for your time Mr. Prime Minister,” I said turning off the recorder. He smiled and nodded. We rose and shook hands, and I turned to leave. Richard had to pack up his cameras, so I waited by the door. An agent came and stood beside me.
After three or four minutes, Desai left the sitting room, which had become crowded with aides. He walked over to me with his hands clasped nonchalantly behind his back.
“You see, Gandhi found Truth…” he began. I thought of turning on the recorder again but decided not to. The question-and-answer session was over. This was just he and I talking. CLICK! Richard was taking pictures again.
I recall only pieces of the conversation that followed but we talked about Gandhi some more and about great men in general. I mentioned Buddha and he mentioned Thoreau. He felt sorry Thoreau didn’t receive the recognition he deserved during his lifetime. He asked about the books I had read was interested in my research.
“Have you visited India?” he asked. Just as I was about to answer, a man rushed over to Desai and began bowing and vigorously jerking his clasped hands in an upward motion from Desai’s pelvis to his chin in a caricature of the traditional Hindu greeting. “Mr. Prime Minister…” he said nearly out of breath, “I’ve come all the way from Such-and-Such and I’m so pleased to see you, I’m so very pleased to see you, I’ve come all the way from Such-and-Such…” Desai turned calmly toward the man and listened. As Richard and I prepared to leave once again, Desai slowly raised his outstretched palm to gently silence his admirer. He turned to us and said goodbye. I was more than satisfied.
Between the twenty-five minutes of taped conversation and our conversation afterward, we had spent, not three, but forty minutes together. Nevertheless, my mind filled with questions I wished I had asked.
In the hall agents were still lurking about; the aides were still running around. “Life in the fast lane!” said Richard, grinning as we got into the elevator.
My feelings exactly.