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I interviewed Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai

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NOTES from 2007:

  1. The reporters and news anchors who were leaving the Prime Minister’s suite as I was going in included John Chancellor, Barbara Walters, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather. Other faces were familiar but we couldn’t put faces to names at the time. They all had come to ask Desai how India would vote regarding Nuclear Arms proliferation. Ironically, not only were they all scooted out when their time was up, he refused to reveal to them how India would vote whereas he explained his vote to me in detail.
  2. Though he refused to sign the agreement until the three major powers signed it, he did assure President Carter and the U.N. that India would “not manufacture or acquire nuclear weapons even if the rest of the world did so.”
  3. Desai is credited for having healed relations between India and Pakistan considerably. He did away with many of Indira Gandhi’s constitutional amendments which had stripped the rights of citizens and he made amendments which prevented any future government from misusing National Emergency. The Janata Party, however, was unstable and began to divide, hampering Desai’s effectiveness. Desai was too conservative for many. One journalist accused him of having secret dealings with the C.I.A. This was never proven and Desai denied it to his death but it damaged his reputation. He resigned from office and from politics in 1979.
  4. In the first draft of my article (the brief one) I left out Desai’s comment about the Jews under Hitler. James Ragsdale, the newspaper editor asked me why. I told him I left it out because I didn’t want to hurt or offend anyone. He pointed out that it was not my job to edit or censor the Prime Minister of India. My job was to report the experience. Give the reader the information and let them draw their own conclusions. Quite a teacher, that Mr. Ragsdale.
  5. The most memorable aspect of Morarji Desai, which I under-appreciated at age 24, was his aura of serenity and kindness. At the beginning of our talk, I was very nervous. I was way over my head in this situation. When I looked at Desai, his entire demeanor somehow communicated that everything was fine… there was nothing to be nervous about.
  6. Throughout our talk, Desai’s frantic and nervous consulate aides were vying for his attention. Understandable, since our conversation had gone way beyond the three minutes that were scheduled. The aides’ body language was comical. While Desai was talking with me, an aide would pop out and move toward him with wringing hands, wearing a look that implied that the interruption was of grave importance and urgency. Desai would slowly and gently lift the flat of his hand toward the would-be interrupter who would melt apologetically into the background. Desai made that gesture with a kindness in his eyes. He did it with a look that said, “I appreciate your concern but I’m on top of this and everything is as it should be.”Nearly thirty years later, that aura is what I remember best about meeting Morarji Desai.On April 10, 1995, Morarji Desai died at the age of 99.

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